Can a teacher take a pupil by the hand? What does a pupil mean by tapping another on the shoulder? Researchers highlight the positive effects of touch in a school environment.

Pupils are working on mathematical problems, and the teacher is walking around the class giving advice. One pupil solves a difficult problem, and the teacher pats her on the shoulder: ”Well done!”

Is this appropriate?

These days, discussion about touching often leads to associations with sexual harassment, the #metoo campaign, or tabloid scandals about teachers forcibly removing their pupils from the classroom.

The researchers in the Koskettava koulu (”Touching school”) project want to highlight the positive aspects of touch.

”Previous studies have shown that if a teacher touches the pupil in a way that feels friendly, encouraging, comforting and positive, it will probably result in the pupil being calmer, a more active participant and even attaining better grades,” says Liisa Tainio, head of the project and professor of Finnish language and literature education at the University of Helsinki.

 ”Our research material features memories in which former pupils describe positive memories of teachers who could comfort them at exactly the right time by just putting a hand on their shoulder or giving them a pat on the back.”

Videos, memory collections and interviews

The project researchers began with more than 100 hours of video recordings from classrooms in Finnish comprehensive schools. Soon they found that many had a great deal of personal memories about touch at school. This autumn, they decided to launch an online collection for memories.

Doctoral students Pilvi Heinonen and Ulla Karvonen went through the school memory archives of the Finnish Literature Society, and Vilma Vanhanen interviewed teachers and pupils about their experiences related to touch for her Master’s thesis.

Our research material features memories in which former pupils describe positive memories of teachers who could comfort them at exactly the right time by just putting a hand on their shoulder or giving them a pat on the back.

As touch is fundamentally tactile, the researchers soon found that they were unable to glean information about this important aspect through traditional methods from linguistic and interaction research. Consequently, artists and experts of art-based research methods were invited to the project.

In her doctoral dissertation in art, Jaana Erkkilä-Hill examined how the teacher interacts with the pupils as an artist.  Simo Routarinne is a Master of Arts (Theatre and Drama) focusing on improvisation, and an interaction trainer. They will organise workshops for the researchers, so that they can experience art-based research methods. The workshops and the resulting documents will be used as research materials.

Teasing and entertaining

The researchers found that certain types of touch in the classroom were always interpreted identically. Deciphering the meaning of such inter-pupil conventionalised forms of touch was one of the first tasks for the researchers. Conventionalised touching can be, for example, tapping another pupil on the shoulder or patting their hand. Pupils use these kinds of touch to invite each other into interaction, and sometimes into play.

Physical behaviour generates another dimension of the school environment, alongside the verbal dimension. The physical and verbal dimensions may involve the same activity, but they may also aim for different goals. For example, pupils may use physical interaction to tease one another, even though verbally they are aligned with the teacher’s assignments. This way, different levels of actions intersect in the classroom.

A teasing touch, for example, with an object, seems to be a sign of frustration in class.

Tainio gives one example of a group of three pupils working on a grammar assignment. Two of the pupils are teasing each other by poking the other with the elbow. While the two are poking each other, one of them starts talking about which case the word in the assignment belongs in. The physical interaction is still involved in the teasing, but the pupil expresses her desire to begin working on the assignment verbally.

A teasing touch, for example, with an object, seems to be a sign of frustration in class.

 ”Pupils may try to entertain themselves by poking another with a pen, or throwing wads of paper at them. This is a way of making fun with your neighbour, if studying feels frustrating,” explains Liisa Tainio.

The one-arm hug

There is more touching in lower comprehensive school, and it is more spontaneous in nature. Vilma Vanhanen’s Master’s thesis indicates that many teachers in lower comprehensive school feel that touching is a normal, everyday thing. For example, touching during physical education in the course of instruction is seen as a natural, even necessary part of interaction.

The rules relating to touching are also made explicit. For example, the class may agree that a teacher will place a hand on the shoulder of the child who needs to calm down. Some teachers generate routines around touching, such as shaking hands with all pupils in the morning.

Some teachers generate routines around touching, such as shaking hands with all pupils in the morning.

Touching is also associated with concerns, particularly among male teachers: they fear being accused of sexual harassment. In lower comprehensive school, pupils will often spontaneously hug their teachers, making some teachers uncomfortable. The teachers interviewed by Vilma Vanhanen had developed survival methods for such situations: for example, they would use only one arm to hug, thus not rejecting the pupil, but consciously keeping some distance from them.

Many have also planned coping methods for difficult situations. If the need arises to remove a pupil from the class, they intend to invite another teacher to witness the situation in case the matter will need to be discussed later.

Finnish culture is touchy-feely

It is a persistent stereotype that Finns are averse to touching. However, Liisa Tainio sees another side to the issue, arising from conversations she has had with her international colleagues.

 ”My impression is that we have much fewer anxieties than many other countries.”

There are schools in the US and UK with no-touch policies, meaning that teachers are not allowed to touch their pupils except in dire emergencies.

According to Tainio, the Finnish culture of touch has become more liberal over the years. Young people hug each other, and families have become more cuddly.

There are schools in the US and UK with no-touch policies, meaning that teachers are not allowed to touch their pupils except in dire emergencies.

 ”It would feel harsh to completely ban such a natural part of interaction in schools. Touch has many positive impacts on the atmosphere and it builds trust between people,” says Liisa Tainio.

The Ethical Commission of the Teaching Profession stated in 2015 that it does not believe the school should be a sterile, formal environment in which touch is banned.