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Hands off? challenging the touch taboo in education and care contexts

Why the issue of touch is so important

Affective touch is a powerful medium for conveying empathy between people, for example when acknowledging that a child is highly successful, anxious or upset. A large body of recent neurobiological and psychological research clearly demonstrates that affective touch activates a crucial nerve system in the skin of all mammals that defends against stress and promotes feelings of well-being. A lack of touch is linked to less ability to cope. Safe touch also promotes discussion about what is not safe or wanted by other people.

Some research-based information about touch

  1. The recent scientific study of touch, especially using fMRI scanning, has shown that affective touch turns out to be even more complex than expected. In short, human touch has both neurobiological and psychological outcomes for the receiver and the giver (e.g. Field, 2003; Leonard et al., 2014; McGlone, Wessberg , and Olausson, 2014, and Linden, 2015). There are two distinct types of nerves that send signals to the brain which are activated by a touch stimulus (e.g. stroking someone’s arm).
    • Fast-response, discrimination reactors, which convey a high velocity signal to the sensory touch cortex… i.e. the ‘What the….?’ reaction.
    • The second are thin, unmyelinated and slow conducting. These respond best to gentle stroking of a velocity of ~5cm/s and are only to be found in hairy skin (e.g. not on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet) and project to the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex.
  2. Touch which activates the second of these nerve types underpins the close, emotionally-warm relationship important for the developing child and also the mental health and wellbeing of adolescents and adults. The development of the social brain requires touch: it is a fundamental human need and is necessary for healthy social, emotional, cognitive and physical development (Trotter et al., 2016).
  3. The absence, or withholding of touch is likely to have negative consequences, especially for the development of children and young people who have been rejected, neglected and abused (Cameron and Maginn, 2009).
  4. In the UK and in many of the Commonwealth countries, guidelines on showing physical affection and approval to children and young people tend to be based on legal reactions to abuse, as opposed to good practice in childcare. In the stampede to reduce child abuse, the exclusive focus in education and public care has been on limiting abusive practice. The result has been constrained childcare practice, reduced opportunities for teachers and carers to show essential warmth and affection to all children, but especially those children and young people who have been deprived of such positive experiences in their home lives. Such guidelines have also led to considerable male reluctance to work in early years teaching and in childcare. (Piper and Stronach, 2008).
  5. There is no ‘touch taboo’ in central and local government guidelines. The Department for Education and Skills guidance for pupils with severe behavioural difficulties (2003) clearly states that while physical contact should be a conscious, self-aware, reasonable and justifiable response by any adult where intentions are explicit to the young person, there are occasions when a spontaneously warm and caring adult reaction is not only appropriate but essential.

We believe that there is a need for clarification of the confusion experienced by many teachers, residential and foster carers, indeed most adults who spend time with children.  When it comes to touching children and young people in their care, whether it is to show affection, provide comfort and empathy, recognise extra effort or success, give confidence and reassurance, or prevent the child from inflicting hurt on herself/himself or others positive touch is an essential component to this care.

A time for reflection

In 1967 Martin Luther King spoke to the American Psychological Association about the links between racism, unemployment and living conditions. He declared ‘there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted.’

In his Presidential Address in June this year, Peter Kinderman claimed that Psychology is fundamentally about the things that really matter – relationships, optimism, a sense of meaning and purpose and personal agency. He drew on Martin Luther King Jr to reiterate that “…there are some things in our society and world to which we must always be maladjusted, if we are to be people of good will… There comes a time when one must make a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right” (King, 1991).

As applied psychologists, we should be urging our professional associations and our learned societies to take a positive stand on the importance of touch and to draw upon well-established psychological theory, past and current research, recent neuroscientific evidence, as well as safeguarding guidelines, to make a declaration that there is a psychological and biological need for touch for all children, but especially those who have been rejected, neglected and abused.

What can you do? Sign our petition

If you agree with our arguments for promoting affective touch in schools and care contexts, you could sign our petition on the 38degrees website.


Cameron, R.J. and Maginn, C. (2009). Achieving positive outcomes for children in care. London: Sage Publishing.

Department for Education and Skills (2003) Guidance on the use of restrictive physical intervention for pupils with severe behavioural difficulties. London: DFES (Section 3.5 page 9. para. 2).

Geddes, L. (2015). The touch that made you. New Scientist, 28-02-15, 35-37.

Field, T (2003). Touch. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Kinderman, P. (2017). Psychology is action, not thinking about oneself. The Psychologist. (June). 50-54.

King Jr, M.L. (1991). A testament of hope: the essential writings and speeches. New York: HarperCollins.

Linden, D J (2015). Touch: a science of heart, hand and mind.

Leonard JA, Berkowitz T, and Shusterman A (2014). The effect of friendly touch on delay-of-gratification in preschool children. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (2006), 1-11.

McGlone, F, Wessberg, J and Olausson, H. (2014). Discriminate and affective touch: sensing and feeling. Neuron, 82 (4), 737-755.

Peters, K L (1998). Neonatal stress, reactivity and cortisol. Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal nursing, 11 (4), 45-49.

Piper, H. and Stronach, I. (2008). Don’t Touch! The educational story of a panic.   London: Routledge.

Tonjum, M.K. (2001). The Language of touch, Parent News:

Trotter, P.D., McGlone, F., McKie, S., McFarquhar, M., Elliott, R., Walker, S.C., & Deakin, J.F.W. (2016). Effects of acute tryptophan depletion on central processing of CT-targeted and discriminatory touch in humans. European Journal of Neuroscience. 44: 2072–2083.

Walker, S.C., Trotter, P.D., Swaney, W T and McGlone, F (2017). C-tactile afferents: Cutaneous mediators of oxytocin release during affiliated tactile interactions? Neuropeptides (in print).

One Comment so far:

  1. […] within the profession, in areas where we are really pushing boundaries and leading the way. From challenging the touch taboo in schools and in care contexts to rethinking mental distress in children. Over the past year we’ve also seen a real increase […]

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