Are Teachers Allowed To Touch Students in America?

teacher hugging student in classroom main

Teachers play a special role in the lives of their students. They ”touch” them in many ways. But, they should not actually physically touch them. Teaching has an important social aspect. Physical contact is a major aspect of social interaction. Teachers need to be careful and understand the specifics of local rules.  Though corporal punishment is still allowed throughout the United States teacher should instead take advantage of other resources available to address the needs of their students.  

Teaching: Educational and Social

Teaching in today’s world is as complicated as ever.  Educators do not just have to know the material but how to teach it in the best way, the appropriate way.  

And, they have to deal with students who often do not want to be there, might have a range of problems, or simply the struggles of growing up.  School is for teachers and students alike an important social institution.   Some of the pitfalls of teaching involve how to act properly.

One major concern: What is the proper amount of physical contact between teachers and students?  In fact, is ANY degree of physical conduct, any touching, allowable?  

Basic Rule 

Do not be upset if you are concerned about this question.  Physical contact is a basic part of social life.  You are with your students for many hours a day. 

There might be some time when some sort of physical contact might seem appropriate.  For instance, when a student is very upset and you want to do something as simple as give them a reassuring pat on the shoulder.  Is this a problem?  Is this inappropriate?  

A basic rule is to follow the regulations of your school and state educational authority. If unsure about them, the best policy is no unnecessary physical contact.  

Teachers soon learn that “common sense” is not enough.  And, physical contact of any type is not only subjective, it is very sensitive.  What is “inappropriate” in specific cases will often turn on your own school system’s policy.  There is a lot of state educational discretion.  

The National Education Association (NEA) published a pamphlet entitled “Teach Do Not Touch.”  This is the policy you should follow.  There have been multiple serious complaints, both valid and invalid.  Do not become a statistic.  In cases of doubt, do not touch.

Safety Zones 

The dangers of physical intimacy, and we are not talking about obvious matters such as kissing, dating, or sexual relationships, warrant safe buffer zones between students and teachers.

Teachers should avoid non-school related social relationships with students.  They should not have unauthorized one-on-one meet-ups or social interactions.  Teachers should not engage with students (unless authorized) on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter (or whatever they call themselves these days).  Do not post photographs of students on social media.

Teachers should also be careful about their own social media usage.  

Educational Teams 

We learned about educational teams when discussing the science of learning.  

A teacher is not alone, though it often seems that way, in educating and overseeing their students.  An empathetic teacher might wish to console, including with some sort of supportive touch (like a hug), their students.  They might feel that it is their job and responsibility.  

However, the student is best treated by the school guidance counselor or other professionals who have special training to address their emotional and physical needs.  

Shades of Gray? 

Teachers have pushed back upon the “no touch rule.”  

They have argued that various types of physical contact, including for middle and high school students, are appropriate.  Educators have argued that physical contact is a serious human need and beneficial to students in various cases.  

The NEA pamphlet, for instance, sensibly includes this passage:

Avoid physical contact with students. This is a particularly difficult area. Younger children often seek and need physical comfort from their teachers who, sadly, may be the only source of compassion and love that some students have.

It also noted that an “occasional hug” was probably appropriate for elementary grades. Ah. When we start to have exceptions, we go down the proverbial rabbit hole.  What sort of hug

There are all types of hugs.  Teachers discussing hugging had various opinions on the matter, including in one case drawing the line at “side hugs” (visualize the typical photo where your arm is draped across a person’s shoulder).  Male teachers often are more concerned, physical contact is deemed more “sensual” in their case, though at times this is stereotypical.  

In this age of COVID, perhaps, this is less of a concern for some.  Physical contact is at the minimum.  A handshake might be too much; a fist or elbow bump is more socially acceptable.  

But, these examples also show that a total “no physical contact rule” might be too extreme in some cases.  Common sense does play some role.  A “high five” after a great play at a game will not necessarily be appropriate.  Still, a student might not appreciate even that.

Good judgment along with following the basic rule set forth above should always be followed. For instance, if you need to touch someone for their own safety, such as to guide a student away from danger in a science lab, it can be necessary.  

Corporal Punishment 

The Secretary of Education recently put out a policy letter advising educators to avoid corporal punishment.  Many states still allow schools to use this dubious means of punishment, including non-public schools in New York.  What is allowed is not always ideal.

There are many ways to punish and reward students. Corporal punishment should not be necessary. Do not let personal feelings, which as human beings you will have, color your judgment here.  Physical contact of any kind can merely make the situation worse.  

“Touch” Students Without Physical Contact 

If touching is not necessary for punishment, it is also not necessary for other things. 

There are a variety of ways, verbal or otherwise, you can do to engage with your students. If they need cheering up, deserve to be congratulated, or pleasantly greeted, there are many ways to do it.  You can “touch” students without physically doing so.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.