C.M. Corner: Physical Contact and Behavior

Travis Chapman

As we work with new students, we strive to build positive relationships as quickly as possible.  This happens typically through a number of different ways: introducing yourself, positive reinforcement, class activities, games, etc.  One of the more common ways that we communicate care is through what we see as positive physical contact through a comforting hand on the shoulder or light touch on the arm to gain attention.  But what if what we intend isn’t what is understood?  In a 2 part post on the C.M. Corner last year, “How We Communicate”, we discussed how communication is not only intent, but also understanding of the information.   Today we are looking into what the  “haptics” or communication through touch: how it can affect our students and how we recommend you approach the subject.
As human beings, we filter information through our own experience.  However, something we need to keep in mind with any student we encounter is that we have had a different experience than they have.  Whether you grew up in another part of the country, the same city or even next door, their lives are full of experiences and situations we may or may have never encountered.  Often times as a substitute staff member, we do not have the opportunity to learn about those experiences simply due to the lack of time we have with our students.  Maybe the student has a special need that we are unaware of or do not know much information about.  The student could have a past trauma issue or maybe they simply have higher personal boundaries.  What about religious beliefs or cultural values?  While that particular physical contact may be comfortable or ok for you based upon your experience, it may not be for our students and how you are trying to communicate care, concern and compassion may inadvertently communicate a lack of respect, control or harm.  Thus, instead of creating a safe and positive environment, the student(s) may now feel uncomfortable, agitated and unsafe, forcing them into a space to protect themselves in essence, from you, which would negatively affect their behavior.
I have heard a number of responses to these types of discussions, from those who never considered these factors to confusion as the full-time staff do it to frustration as to the sensitivity to the topic.  In this, I ask you to consider, what if a total stranger came up and put their hand on your shoulder?  Most would feel pretty uncomfortable and adding any of the situations listed above could elicit any number of emotional responses.  We want to ensure a safe, positive learning environment for our students and one of the easiest ways to help is to act on a zero-touch policy.
“But what happens if a kindergarten student gives me a hug?”  If you’re doing a good job with younger students, that is bound to happen.  The biggest factor is that we aren’t initiating that contact.  However, transition them away from a full hug if possible as quickly as you can.  I recommend moving them toward hi-5’s or fist bumps, something with less contact.  You can say something similar to “Thank you for the hug, I really appreciate it.  However, I really like hi-5’s better than hugs.  Can we do that next time?”  That way you’re not telling the student their bad, but positively redirecting their behavior. 
“But in Special Education, I’m told to hold the student’s arm or guide their hands.  What then?”  In Special Education, things do need to be approached differently to help the students succeed.  However, you can’t act on information you don’t have.  If the full-time staff direct you to walk a student down the hall by holding their elbow, or by guiding their hands while completing a project, that is fine.  However, if they don’t give you the instruction to do so, then make sure you’re keeping your hands off of the student as Special Education situations can be more negatively affected by physical touch.  If a student initiates contact in Special Education and you are unsure if it is appropriate, then touch base with the other classroom staff and let them direct or help determine the best approach.
Again, we want to ensure we’re creating a positive learning environment for our students and that we are not doing anything to unintentionally cause students to be uncomfortable or unsafe.  As educators, it is our responsibility to take all of our students into consideration so they are able to learn, grow and succeed.  If you have questions on specific situations or want to discuss some strategies to gain attention or communicate care, concern or compassion, please reach out to our Teachers On Call team or send us an email at training@teachersoncall.com.