When I was a new teacher, I heeded the advice of my seasoned instructors: avoid physical contact with your students at all costs. You see, I was not teaching kindergarten or elementary school; I was teaching high schoolers. Kindergarten teachers can embrace their students—it’s part of fostering a sense of security. High school teachers, on the other hand, risk a lawsuit.
Sure, students might attempt a hug. But I’d stop it before it could get ugly. I could see them attempting to enter my airspace, their arms outstretched like broken wings, an uncertain smile on their lips, a longing for connection in their eyes. And I’d destroy that hope before it dared land anywhere near my person.
A simple hug can have a profound impact on the wellbeing and performance of students of any age
Using my deft karate skills, I’d spin out of the hug and then awkwardly pat the student on the back (never rub, just pat). If they caught me unawares, before I had time to perform the spin-move, I’d abruptly turn my body a sharp 30 degrees, step away from the hug and jut out my hips in some sort of triangle formation so that it was clear that our lower bodies were not touching and never were touching. And then I’d make pointed eye contact with any other student in the vicinity so that they could see I clearly did not initiate this physical contact, nor did I enjoy it.
For five years I avoided anything but impersonal, restrained and totally chaperoned contact with my students. But when a student died by suicide on campus, that all changed.
I can’t articulate the level of grief my students and colleagues experienced after this event. We mourned the loss of a beloved student, but we also mourned the loss of the veil of ignorance we’d been living in—one that assumed our kids were OK. Because our kids were far from OK—they were stressed, they were depressed and they needed our help.
I couldn’t give my students all the support they needed, but I gave them what I could. I began hugging my students. And I never turned back.
Hugs Provide Wellbeing
Teachers learn in their developmental psychology classes that infants need physical touch and that babies who do not receive adequate stimulation experience developmental delays. There seems to be an assumption that as children mature, this need greatly diminishes. On the contrary, a simple hug can have a profound impact on the wellbeing and performance of students of any age.
Research has noted a not-so-surprising connection between a good hug and relief after a bad day. The positive effects of hugging are attributed to the release of oxytocin—the body’s true “feel good” hormone, which in turn triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine and inhibits the stress hormone cortisol—resulting in a reduction of the feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.
Overall, a hug can make a student feel better, and in a time in which the diagnosis for mental health issues is up 47 percent for boys and 65 percent for girls, that’s a connection we can’t afford to ignore.
The positive psychological effects of a hug extend to our physical health as well. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have noted a connection between hugs and the ability to ward off stress-related illness and infection. Hugging creates a feeling of social connectedness and support that seems to ward off stress-induced illness.
Perhaps rather than an investment in industrial-sized bottles of hand-sanitizer, physical touch is the salve schools need to increase attendance rates. Given the relationship between how consistently a child attends school and their academic performance, the importance of keeping our students healthy cannot be overstated.
Hugs Foster Engagement Too
This research didn’t convince me that my students needed physical contact; I had already witnessed it first-hand
A good hug lets us know we have social support, connection and people who care—feelings that can get us through some pretty tough times. This feeling can also help students perform better in school.
Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center, is interested in the effects of positive touch on human behavior. His group studied the footage of NBA basketball games and noted a correlation between players touching (such as high fives and pats) and their team wins.
Keltner’s findings are supported by the research of psychologist Robert Kurzban, who found that participants who were touched prior to the start of a game known as “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” were more apt to cooperate and share with a partner.
And Nicolas Gueguen’s research, published in the journal Social Psychology of Education, linked touch with an increase in participation rates of students in a classroom setting. Gueguen based his hypothesis on older studies linking positive touch with an increase in on-task behavior and a decrease in disruptive behavior amongst younger schoolchildren.
Overall, hugging, an indisputable positive touch, may very well contribute to students being more present, engaged and cooperative in school.
This research didn’t convince me that my students needed physical contact; I had already witnessed it first-hand. And since then, I’ve continued to hug, never once turning my body or attention away. I hug female students. I hug male students. I give sideward hugs and bear hugs. I hug crying kids and laughing kids. I’ve even hugged students in my room, alone.
I understand the fear—the concern that a hug will turn into an accusation. I realize that hugging is not for everyone and not appropriate for every situation. For some students, even a touch given with the best intentions can be triggering, so it’s imperative to always get a student’s consent before swooping in. But placing a moratorium on hugging is not the answer, especially when research shows just how powerful a good hug can be.