Teachers who are too scared to give children a reassuring pat on the shoulder are guilty of child abuse, a neurologist has warned.
Professor Francis McGlone, head of affective neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University, said that physical contact with students is “absolutely essential” for children’s brain development.
Speaking at British Psychological Society conference on touch in schools and children’s services, he told delegates that “Denying it is like denying a child oxygen.”
“I get very exercised about the demonisation of touch. It’s cruel, in my mind. It’s another form of abuse,” she added.
“The scientific evidence is incontrovertible. I’m not just talking psychononsense; I’m talking about proper, evidenced neuroscience.”
While physical contact between teachers and pupils is not illegal, it is generally discouraged. But child psychologists at the conference called for a change of attitudes, and said schools must explain to parents that physical contact was a necessary part of a teacher-student relationship
“What’s missing is a recognition of how important touch is,” said child psychologist Sean Cameron. “And that withholding touch is, in itself, a form of psychological abuse.”
He said that many heads and teachers saw touching a child as an unjustifiable risk, citing the case of a secondary teacher who put his hand on a boy’s shoulder to calm him down. The boy responded with: “Take your hands off me, you paedo.”
“By discouraging touch, you’re depriving a young person of a very humane reaction,” Mr Cameron said. “But you’re also setting up a situation where a young person can use this as a tool to put down or control a teacher. It’s a double whammy, really.”
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said she would always advise teachers to be cautious. “Don’t put yourself in a dangerous position,” she told the Times Education Supplement.
“Don’t put yourself in a situation where a child can accuse you of inappropriate contact. “Of course, children must be protected. But teachers also have a right not to have their career ruined by false accusations.”