Youth Services Law

“No-Touch” Policies Harm Children

Child crying next to teacher

I have heard many cautious lawyers and more than one self-proclaimed expert claim that elementary school teachers and child care workers should never touch their students. These “no-touch” policies have gone so far as to prevent kids from hugging one another on campuses, and even made adults afraid to help kids apply sunscreen or band-aids for fear that they could be accused of inappropriate touching. These policies actually harm children, because they ignore the fact that appropriate human touch is a healthy and necessary part of growth and development.

Touch is a Need

Physical touch is a need for both survival and thriving. Numerous studies have shown that all human beings have a need for touch, and when we go without, our mental and physical well-being suffers. In fact, some studies suggest that if given the choice between food and physical affection, we are more likely to choose affection even if we are hungry.

This need is particularly strong with young children. No less an authority than the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has taken the position that no-touch policies harm children more than than they help. In its 1996 position statement on the prevention of child abuse, NAEYC stated, “No-touch policies are misguided efforts that fail to recognize the importance of touch to children’s healthy development. Touch is especially important for infants and toddlers. Warm, responsive touches convey regard and concern for children of any age.”

No-Touch Prevents Valuable Learning

The other problem with no-touch policies is that they prevent kids from learning what appropriate touch looks like, especially if those kids do not receive enough physical affection at home. Kids need to practice physical touch among themselves and with adults to learn what is appropriate, and to learn how to read the body language of the person receiving their touch. This is body language that will inform them whether their touch is welcome or not, and it is crucial to learning how to set boundaries within any interaction.

Of course, adults need to be certain that their touches actually teach children what is appropriate. As NAEYC explained, “Adults should be sensitive to ensuring that their touches (such as pats on the back, hugs, or ruffling the child’s hair) are welcomed by the children and appropriate to their individual characteristics and cultural experience.”

No-Touch Reinforces Negative Stereotypes

No-touch policies were borne out of the idea that there are many predators in our school system and childcare centers. The idea was that if the adults were subject to a no-touch policy, abuse would stop. The reality is that in setting such a rule, we have implied that all childcare workers and teachers (particularly males) are predatory. We also have failed to address the problem of actual predators who don't typically abuse their victims in public and most often are family members. No-touch policies are a reactionary, knee-jerk solution that fails to solve the problem.

Educating Parents and Supporting Staff

The above arguments are all well and good in a vacuum, but it’s hard to implement them when parents start overreacting. Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid having to educate parents. It’s a difficult task at the best of times, and complaints about touching can be particularly hard given today’s heightened awareness of child abuse. Providing for the needs of children, however, requires that we not let hyper-vigilant parents coerce us into a hyper-cautious, and very harmful, policy.

We also must support our staff members who respond appropriately to young children’s need for physical contact. A staff member who is caring for the whole child will hug children, rock babies, and let toddlers sit on their laps. Indeed, if we need to physically guide children, a hand on their back is much safer than pulling their arms. We cannot become so paranoid about keeping children safe that we reward cold personalities who don’t provide the warmth that children need.

The appeal of “no-touch” policies is that they set a bright line that is easy for administrators to enforce. But like the misguided “zero tolerance” policies in schools, the “no-touch” policies simply harm children without any corresponding increase in safety. Adults who are in charge of students need to identify policies that serve the greater purpose of caring for children, and create avenues for better response to actual suspected abuse. In our centers, we must do the difficult work of defining gray areas and supporting our staff in their showing the appropriate physical affection that children crave.

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