The fear of physical touch: A new teacher's nightmare

Written by: Alan Newland | Published:
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Why is the fear of physical contact with pupils such a nightmare for new teachers? Alan Newland argues it needn’t be – and urges the revival of the maxim ‘in loco parentis’ as our guiding principle

If you are a new teacher trying to settle into your new school it may be beginning to dawn on you that not everything you were told on your training course converts seamlessly to what happens in school.

In my experience working with new teachers, this is particularly true of the legal responsibilities and indeed the legal authorities that teachers are expected to exercise from day one on the job.

Defining a teacher’s legal responsibilities and authorities is rarely dealt with adequately on training courses, leaving new teachers often uncertain about what they must and must not do, the distinction between “duties” and “powers”, or what the differences are between what the law authorises on the one hand and what school policies decree on the other.

Top of the list of concerns in my experience is the issue of physical contact with students and pupils. Most new teachers are terrified of this whole area, especially men.

It doesn’t help that misinformed colleagues might misadvise them “not to touch children unless it’s an emergency” or “never be alone with a pupil”. These fears are often compounded by school policies that urge teachers to “minimise physical contact” in the interests of “safeguarding”.

I talk to new and trainee teachers all over the country about the legal, ethical and moral dimensions of entering teaching and the first thing I say to them is that we need to revitalise the notion of teachers being in loco parentis – adopting a duty of care like that of a responsible parent.

This is a very helpful notion because we all know what responsible parenting looks like even if we are not parents ourselves. Apart from being reassuring, it is also the legal basis on which a teacher’s duty of care has been historically defined since the Victorian era.

For example, if a child has an accident and is injured, don’t think you are going to get sacked for neglect or dereliction of duty. Accusations of neglect are rare and it would have to be proved that you behaved recklessly or knowingly failed to prevent harm before any allegation would get to the point of you being disciplined or even sacked.

Questions will be asked of course, usually by the senior teachers like the designated safeguarding lead or headteacher and sometimes parents (and conceivably even people like the ambulance service or the police in serious cases), but that does not mean you are culpable of neglect or a failure of your duty of care.

Do you set up your daily teaching activities and organise your class to prevent the likelihood of accidents and harm? If so, you are behaving a like a responsible parent and you have fulfilled your duty of care under the law.

Will you assist a child struggling to dress, or help them do a hand-stand or balance on gym apparatus, or guide their arms or hands to manipulate a hazardous tool or a musical or scientific instrument?

Will you demonstrate a dance move or a football tackle? Will you model drama gestures or how to form a rugby scrum safely? Yes? Then you are behaving a like a responsible parent and you have fulfilled your duty of care under the law.

Will you intervene in a fight between pupils to prevent one child pummelling another, perhaps needing to drag them apart to minimise the harm or injury being inflicted? Then you are behaving a like a responsible parent and you have fulfilled your duty of care under the law.

If you congratulate a pupil by offering them a high-five, a handshake or a pat on the back, would you be doing what responsible parents do? Yes! Then why not do it? Would a responsible parent console their distressed child? Yes, they would. Then why would you deny consolation to children in need?

Of course you do not go into school every day seeking opportunities to engage in gratuitous physical contact. That is not only inappropriate but characterises you as someone unsuitable to be a teacher.

People who need to “make friends” with pupils, who are emotionally dependent on children for approval, who misuse their authority to psychologically or physically bully or assault pupils, who find children and young people sexually arousing are all unsuitable to be teachers.

Those who display any signs of behaviour reflecting such desires will normally be very quickly noticed by colleagues and will be peremptorily excised from schools.

However, as a profession, we need to get back to using our common sense and reclaim the notion that the default position for all teachers – especially new teachers, including men – is that they are trusted and trustworthy to engage in appropriate physical contact with children in the ways that parents are.

Teaching is by its very nature an intimate activity:

  • Psychologically – what can be more intimate than trying to understand someone enough to motivate and inspire them?
  • Emotionally – how can you motivate and inspire anyone unless you have an emotional connection with them?
  • And yes, at times, even physically too – for all the proper, necessary, appropriate and valid reasons we have discussed above.

Unwanted and unwarranted touching is not only intrusive to one’s privacy and dignity, but it may also even be considered an assault on one’s person. If you are in any doubt that physical contact with your pupils may be unwelcome or inappropriate – for example from a cultural perspective – then just don’t do it.

But when teachers are doing their job to the best of their ability, physical contact with children is appropriate, necessary and often desirable. We must not let fear degrade or diminish the effectiveness of what we are trying to do. Otherwise innocent and appropriate professional behaviour is made toxic. New teachers – especially male teachers – are undermined and deskilled by this fear and have their abilities and natural confidence around children drained. That is wrong.

Always follow your school policies, which should be informed not only by common sense but also by what the law empowers teachers to do. Be confident that in any situation where you find yourself wondering how to behave or doubting what your responsibilities and authorities are, ask yourself the question: What would a responsible parent do now? If you do it, you won’t go far wrong. The law will be on your side.

A checklist of valid reasons for physical contact are, to:

  • Praise, congratulate, affirm.
  • Console, comfort, support.
  • Apply First Aid.
  • Show, demonstrate, model.
  • Direct, guide, usher.
  • Restrain children (including using reasonable force) to stop fighting.
  • In any situation you deem to be an emergency and a child’s physical compliance is necessary.

Invalid reasons for physical contact are, when – quite simply – there is no need to do it.

  • Alan Newland spent 40 years as a teacher, lecturer, headteacher and advisor at the Department for Education and the General Teaching Council for England. He runs the award-winning social media network His new book Becoming a Teacher: The legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession (Crown House Publishing, August 2021) is out now.

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