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Losing touch

Josie Appleton, The Guardian, February 9, 2005

With teachers and carers no longer allowed to offer comforting hugs - or even put on a plaster, their relationship with the children they look after is suffering, writes Josie Appleton

It's an everyday drama at primary schools up and down the country - but according to London teacher Kate Abley, a child wetting himself in the classroom is no longer a molehill, it's a mountain.

"One male teacher refused to change children - he'd get other teachers to do it," says Abley. "Another teacher would call the child's mother to come in and deal with it."

Those teachers who were prepared to change a child's wet pants were supposed to take another adult into the changing rooms, to keep an eye on them.

"The whole thing was completely impractical."

There's a growing panic among childcare professionals about touching young children in their care which, says a group of academics at Manchester Metropolitan University's Institute of Education, is causing concern and uncertainty about what's OK and what's not when it comes to innocent physical contact with youngsters.

In research they are planning to publish later this year, academics Heather Piper, John Powell and Hannah Smith describe how some child carers are reluctant even to put a plaster on a child's scraped knee. Very young children have to treat their injuries themselves - with the nursery worker or teacher giving instructions on how to open the box, take out a plaster and stick it on. If a child's parent is nearby, he or she is summoned to deal with the injury.

Piper describes it as a crazy situation.

"Many people are behaving in completely ludicrous ways. What is cast into doubt is the process of normal nurturing - the way adults are with children."

Comforting a child when they're upset, putting a plaster on them, changing their wet pants - all these everyday ways in which adults care for young children are now seen as suspect.

"Children are used to being cared for by adults, being picked up and having somebody put their plasters on. If they go to places where adults don't touch them, this must be quite horrifying," says Piper - she cited the example from one playgroup in her research where there was "no touch that was caring at all".

When there's an emergency, childcare professionals are often struck dumb, unable to do the obvious thing. Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University and author of Paranoid Parenting, says that there has been a

"de facto ban on physical contact between adults and children".

He cites an example from a school in Bristol where a seven-year-old boy got his head stuck in the railings and endured an 80-minute wait until he was freed.

"Not one of them attempted to pull him out, or even put an arm around him to reassure him," says Furedi.

Peter Wild, a former PE teacher and now head of behaviour support for Birmingham LEA, says teachers today couldn't do what would have once been instinctive.

"On one school trip 20 years ago a small boy got his willy caught in his zip when he went to the toilet. I went in and freed it. Now there would be a fuss, and the boy would have to go to casualty."

Teachers hold back from offering children support or comfort, says Wild. He says he was once asked by a female primary school teacher whether it was OK to cuddle a child.

"A few years ago you couldn't imagine a teacher asking that," he says.

Another infant teacher told Piper that

"under no circumstances must you hug a child or put them on your knee".

The result is a fraught relationship, with nursery workers extricating themselves if a child tries to hug them, and teachers afraid to put their arm around a distressed child's shoulder.

And it isn't only younger children who miss out: Toby Marshall, a teacher from east London, says this frostiness particularly affects teachers' relationships with more difficult teenagers.

"Students who are disaffected often need you to reassure them - to collude with them, to break down some of the professional distance," he says. "Sadly, I tell my colleagues you just have to be guarded."

Teachers who work with deaf and blind children need to touch in order to communicate - yet Piper reports that one special-needs teacher was accused of abuse when an onlooker misunderstood her actions. Touch can help improve a child's technique in music or sport - Nicolas Chisholm, head of the Yehudi Menuhin School, says it used to be common practice for violin teachers to feel a pupil's arm to check they were relaxed, while singing teachers would feel a child's rib cage to study their breathing pattern. Today violin teachers would warn a child before they touched their arm - and singing teachers ask children to put their own hands on their chest.

What's clear is that teachers are taking a hands-off approach: they're sacrificing their judgment and common sense about how best to relate to children. And they're abdicating their responsibility as carers - to fix scraped knees, or help children go to the toilet - as well as blocking up normal, spontaneous interaction. But no-touch policies come with official backing, apparently for teachers' own protection.

In 1998, the Local Government Association warned against teachers rubbing sun cream into children's skin. A spokeswoman for the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers supported the move, saying:

"We advise members to be extremely cautious about things like that because of false allegations which can lead to immediate suspension and dismissal."

Teachers are acutely aware that a single accusation could ruin their career.

"It doesn't matter if you are exonerated," says Wild. "You are tainted."

He now advises teachers to assume what he calls the "defensible position", which involves asking themselves: if somebody was out to get me, and they could see what I am doing now, what would they make of it?

Far from being a rational strategy for combating child abuse, though, this policy reinforces a generalised sense of mistrust, with adults looking suspiciously at other adults' - and their own - interactions with children. In general, says Furedi, there's a broad suspicion about adult intentions towards children.

"In recent years, stranger danger has been redefined as adult danger," he says.

Adults view themselves as potential abusers, in need of round-the-clock surveillance.

According to Professor Alison Jones, a world expert on this issue, who teaches at the University of Auckland, teachers see themselves not just as dangerous for the child but the child as dangerous for them. This is hardly conducive to a positive sense of vocation - and it's perhaps not surprising that young men are turning away from primary school teaching in their droves.

An apparent paradox is that no-touch policies have coincided with an explosion in the numbers of "touch professionals". Massage in schools and nurseries, for example, is now widely encouraged: some schools send their "difficult" children for massage sessions in an attempt to calm them down, and other schools are bringing in massage for whole classes. In Sweden - a country that has a no-touch policy on a par with Britain's - more than 70% of daycare centres use infant massage.

So, stroking a child's back to comfort her is dodgy, while stroking her back as part of a trained massage routine is fine. What's happening here, argues Piper and her colleagues, is the "professionalism of touch", serving to remove it from the world of the "natural" and insert it into the world of the "technical". While everyday informal touch between adults and children is viewed as suspicious, touching is recast as an area of professional expertise, and consigned to special massage sessions.

Piper and her colleagues have started a 12-month research project and are talking to parents, teachers and children about the issue and trying to work out a better way forward. One suggested solution would be clear guidelines which lay down the line on acceptable touch. There's a danger, though, that this would just reinforce suspicion - once professionals start adopting codes they're really admitting their natural instincts can't be trusted. And imagine what the guidelines would look like: touch only below the elbow, and only if the child is severely distressed.

In New Zealand, meanwhile, Jones reports some schools are promoting themselves as "hugging schools", while teachers are making a determined move to touch and hug youngsters. But that seems forced, making touch into a principle rather than just doing what seems right.

Perhaps the best way ahead would be the simplest: individual teachers trying to just act normally around kids. But on a grander scale, maybe what's needed is this: for adults to learn to trust one another again.

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