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The (Ironic) Power Of Touch


How’s this for irony — on the same day a North Carolina newspaper quotes an attorney from that state’s Department of Education recommending that teachers never touch a student, NPR runs a story that says:

“A soft touch on the arm makes the orbital frontal cortex light up, just like those other rewarding stimuli,” Hertenstein says. “So, touch is a very powerful rewarding stimulus — just like your chocolate that you find in your cupboard at home.”

The surging of oxytocin makes you feel more trusting and connected. And the cascade of electrical impulses slows your heart and lowers your blood pressure, making you feel less stressed and more soothed. Remarkably, this complex surge of events in the brain and body are all initiated by a simple, supportive touch.

I personally am a fan of a light supportive touch on a student’s shoulder, and have previously written about studies supporting it (see The Power of “Touch” In The Classroom and “Sense of Touch Colors Our View of the World”).

I’ve received some “push-back,” though, in the past from readers of this blog. What are your thoughts on the issue?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I teach K-5 music. Every day, at least 50 kids hug me. I am not exaggerating. I will not refuse a hug from a child. I will lightly touch a shoulder and say, “You did such a great job today!” I will lightly touch a shoulder and say, “I know you will get this. Keep trying. I’m proud of you.”

    If I get fired for being someone that my children respect, love, and trust… and one who respects, loves, and trusts them in return… then I need to be in another profession.

    When I taught 7-12 vocal music 15+ years ago, it was a completely different story. I was closer to the same age as my students (some were only 4 years younger than I was), and new teachers had been instilled with an incredible fear of physical contact with students. I didn’t dare touch any of those kids. Looking back now, I can think of quite a few of them who probably needed a pat on the arm. Maybe even a hug.

  2. This can be a tricky one. I taught horse riding for several years, including to pubescent girls. Part of the training includes placing the rider’s leg correctly on the horse’s side. It was in her late teens that she confessed to me that she thought my (man!)handling of her leg was ill-motivated, and it was only after she had matured that she realised my true motivation.

  3. After doing research on the power of touch in grad school (80s) and then studying teacher touch in the classroom, I am a firm believer that (positive) teacher touch can truly be very affirming for students in many ways–how they relate to the teacher, their attitude in class, how they feel about themselves, etc.

  4. I’m glad so far you are getting “pull to” Larry!

    I was so frustrated as a primary school teacher with many/most students having significant problems at home/school (usual for new immigrants in Canada at least). Frustrated because how do you comfort a crying 9 year old with just a nod?

    It is beyond the pall, our western insecurity with the body/public affection. Carl Rogers also wrote about this – I’d suggest his “On becoming a person” for any teacher. You won’t be the same after reading it.


  5. Hi Larry,
    I know our context here in Brazil is different from the States. Teachers have always shown affection towards students, especially younger ones. But as a teacher trainer I have found that over the last few years I have warned graduates about touching students, especially the younger ones. Parents have expressed concerns about teachers touching their kids…society has become suspicious…
    But, what do you do with YLE who crawls into your lap unasked when you sit on the floor in a circle; when kids are sent to school feeling sick and cry because they have a temperature and can´t be sent back home as parents are working; when a teenager is crying their eyes out (probably over something quite silly, but important to them at that exact moment)…yes, a slight touch does indeed do wonders…or would work miracles, but we have to restrain ourselves…
    So, I agree with you, it is indeed a shame we cannot talk about this issue in a more rational manner. Fear is a terrible thing. Parents fear teachers touching their kids. We fear touching students for fear of parents & school governing bodies.
    What message do we ultimately send these kids? A fear o touch?

  6. I think it’s essential if one is a warm and caring type of teacher. To withhold it, with a personality that exudes it, seems like a snub. I teach predominantly elementary children. The calming touch, the appreciative hand, the sympathetic one to lean on a bit–are all parts of my repertoire.

    At the same time, a teacher who is more of an academic and not into the touching can NOT use it, and still be effective…because that is who he/she is. The child won’t be hurt, as that is the persona they’ve come to know.

    To each his own, and there’s room for all kinds. I’ve been shocked and surprised to walk into teachers’ rooms and see how very different they all are! And yet so many are just so good!

  7. I teach at university-level English in Japan (when I’m not wearing the hat of publisher) and am a strong believer in the light tap on the shoulder. It’s emotionally affirming. Last year after a classmate committed suicide (over a boy), had three female students (it’s an all girls college) in their misery come up seeking a big bear hug. IMO avoiding this would have been the inappropriate thing. But if I were teaching in NA this is probably what I would have done.

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