Why the fear of Touch is leaving kids lost (guest post)

Why the fear of Touch is leaving kids lost (guest post)

Graham Chatterley is an assistant head at a school in Warrington for pupils with a range of SEMH needs. He has 4 children, the youngest 2 of which have varying ASD needs. One being very high functioning with some social and understanding difficulties, however managing well in Mainstream Primary. The other having significant ASD, ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder needs requiring an SLD setting. This has put Graham in an unusual position of experiencing both sides of Special Education Needs which has aided his understandings of both. He has kindly provided this guest post for the Axcis blog.

Why the fear of Touch is leaving kid’s lost

Just for a second think about your day, your interactions with family, friends and work colleagues. Now relive that day and take out every piece of physical contact you had with other people. No hug for your family, no arm around your friend, no handshake at the start of your meeting. How different would your day be? How would you feel about it?

The importance of touch

It is widely recognised that touch between an infant and their primary caregiver is absolutely vital in that child’s development, understanding and feeling safe. So when a child starts school at age four, are they fully developed, understanding of the world and feeling safe enough to no longer need touch?

There has been a lot of research to support and I would 100% stand by the fact that it is easier to understand the emotional meaning of touch than understanding facial expression or tone of voice.

A stigmatised action

Despite this, touch has become an alarming word when used around children. Even though it is something that can be used in so many positive contexts, it has become attached to so many negative stigmas that it is now seen as a bad and inappropriate thing that has no place in schools.

It is this shortsighted view; this created negativity that leads to dangerous hands-off policies and educators who fear and doubt themselves, children who are put at risk when at school and who leave school not understanding touch as a means of communication and therefore encountering difficulties in their adult lives.

The flip side

On the flip side of this, appropriate, positive touch is a cornerstone of relationship building. Used correctly, it can break down barriers and allow us to see how a child is really feeling. It can be used to show a child that we are there for them or proud of them. It can allow us to keep them safe from themselves or others from them until a time when we can have a verbal interaction to find out what is wrong with them.

I am fortunate enough to work in a school that doesn’t see touch as taboo or inappropriate and is used to positive effect on a daily basis. It is in fact one of the best and most positive tools in my armory – whether it be to help communicate with a child, keep them safe or meeting a sensory need they have. I have done a lot of staff training in a lot of other schools on positive handling and I walk through every set of school gates expecting to be faced with the same misconceptions, stigmas and fears about the use of touch.

Touch as a communication tool for children

It is a given for many that an arm around the shoulders is a show of support, a pat on the back a form of praise, a ruffle of the hair a playful way of saying I like you or a hug to greet, nurture or comfort. These things are a given because we have experienced them. We had a ‘normal’ childhood and received them from adults and caregivers all our lives and we have learned what they mean.

What if a child hasn’t experienced this? What if the caregiver hasn’t done any of these things? What if that caregiver neglected these things or abused the use of touch? What if the only person to give any care to that child is a teacher or member of support staff? But the school says there can be no touch. How does that child learn what those things mean?

The simple answer is they don’t! Touch becomes an unknown thing, and that brings with it a fear. Or it was something genuinely negative and brings with it even more fear. When they go for their first job interview and are expected to shake hands, it brings with it fear and anxiety and they are immediately set up to fail. They cannot form effective relationships because they are scared by or don’t understand every aspect of physical contact so shy away from it. Or worse – repeat the misuse they suffered.

What if that child has additional communication needs? Speech and language support is going on all over the country in schools and a huge amount of time is spent on seeing and recognising body language, hearing tone and volume of voice but nothing on how touch is used to communicate – causing children to avoid it at all costs or get themselves into trouble.

Touch should be the cornerstone of emotional literacy because it is proven to be easier to understand than other forms of communication and can powerfully show emotions

Touch should be the cornerstone of emotional literacy because it is proven to be easier to understand than other forms of communication and can powerfully show emotions. If a child is upset and finds facial expressions difficult to read and doesn’t detect a soothing tone of voice, but finds a gentle arm around the shoulder calming, then should we really be avoiding this touch? Should we continue talking when we know what is more effective? Well this is the position staff are in when constrained by a no touch policy.

I want physical contact between my staff and their pupils. I want to see a pat on the back to say job well done, a holding of hands to say you are safe with me and an arm around the shoulder to say are you ok, do you want to talk about it? These are essential to helping children understand the meaning of touch and how it can be a positive thing.

Touch to keep children safe

Not only do they take away so much. No touch policies are dangerous!

Regardless of training or school policies, every teacher and teaching assistant has had to touch a child at some point. Be it breaking up a fight, stopping a small child running off or preventing an autistic child from walking into a road, it is the duty of care of the member of staff to keep that child safe, and that often requires them to be touched.

For me, I would rather they know how to do these things safely and I will champion positive handling till the day I retire but restraint is an argument for another day.

Having these skills serves much more of a purpose than just keeping everyone safe. Children with poor emotional literacy and feelings they don’t understand often react with aggression. Is it better for them to hurt themselves or another child? Or is it better for them to be held safely by me where they can release those feelings by fighting against me knowing they aren’t going to get hurt? I want them to find another way but at this stage it is the lesser of two evils. Again, put yourself in a position where you encounter a loved one who is angry and distressed. Do you spend ages talking to them or do you hold them as tight as you can and tell them it’s gonna be ok? I will talk later about the benefits of deep pressure touch but it is something we instinctively do without knowing why.

The stigma tells us that holding is used as a way of gaining compliance but the truth is that it is a last resort to keep everyone safe and a way of making a troubled child feel safe when they are at their most distressed. When a child of our own is young and distressed we hold them tight so they don’t hurt themselves and feel safe. Just because they are bigger is this a tool we shouldn’t use?

Touch as a communication tool for staff
Many children can’t say how they feel or may lie about it. Often, children hide how they feel and give nothing away in body language – but the thing they cannot hide and the thing that betrays them every time is their heartbeat.

Anxious? Heart beat rises.

Frustrated? Heart beat rises

Angry? Heart beat rises

With boys, an arm around the shoulder and a subtle hand on the chest can give me the info I need to plan a course of action and prevent an escalation.

I know the immediate risk and can avoid making the situation worse by trying to get them to talk.

Touch to meet sensory needs

I have a far greater experience with sensory needs at home than I do at school but it is becoming more common in my setting. I have mentioned already that my youngest son has severe autism and massive sensory processing problems. He is under-sensitive to touch and when he is unsettled and/or disregulated he will crave a very deep pressure touch. Now I know that this is one of his many needs and I know that because of the specialist setting he is in he will have this need met.

My son is at the very high end of this spectrum with a sensory profile and an awareness of his needs. What about the children who are not as obvious and haven’t been identified? We are new to it at school and if I didn’t have it at home I probably wouldn’t see it; especially as much of the time the children don’t even realise it themselves. However, in my setting if a child initiates touch they won’t be turned away. This may not be the case in a mainstream setting where awareness of sensory needs is hit and miss and they may be denied the touch required to re-regulate themselves.

This may also be a reason why children end up getting themselves into a restraint situation when all they wanted was a squeeze in the first place. These sensory needs are far more common than people realise and staff need to be educated about them and not be afraid or feel restricted from supporting a child in need. It is not just for ASD pupils either, the links between attachment disorder at varying levels and system dis-regulation are proven. There are children in every school in the country affected by attachment to different degrees. All of these children will have sensory needs at one level or another. The problem is that if a child has a need that is not being met then that will be their primary focus. Not English, not Maths and therefore the child gets in trouble for not doing work and it spirals from there.

The common belief is that sensory needs are for special needs and this is simply not the case and if we meet the need we re-focus the child and put them in a better position to learn.

The common belief is that sensory needs are for special needs and this is simply not the case and if we meet the need we re-focus the child and put them in a better position to learn. If that need is physical deep pressure touch and we are a school where we can’t touch then that need will be met in another way like aggression or it won’t be met and that child will struggle all day to concentrate and stay on task. Eventually this will lead to frustration, anger and aggression.

Touch is like so many of the most important things in the world, it is divisive and can be misused but if we are scared of it or we remove it from schools then we lose so much and leave children confused and uncomfortable, not meeting their needs and leaving them unprepared for the real world where touch is a big part of everyday life.

Huge thanks to Graham for this fantastic submission.

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Emily Marbaix