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Physical contact between teachers and preschool-age children in early childhood programs

Mary Beth Lawton, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Considerable evidence indicates that touch is vital to the healthy psychological development of children. However, teacher-child physical contact has rarely been investigated. This study was therefore designed to obtain descriptive data on teacher-child touch in preschool classrooms, the teacher, child and center variables which affect such contact and the messages teachers give to children regarding human closeness. The central question addressed was: do all children receive physical affection from caregivers? The frequency and duration of seven categories of touch were measured in eight preschool classrooms in four day care centers: Affectionate, Caretaking-Helpful, Comfort, Play, Attentional-Control Neutral, Attentional-Control Negative-Punishing and Attentional-Control Affectionate. Data was collected through observation of teachers and 148 children, and interviews with twenty teachers and four directors. The results indicated that while teachers do provide physical affection for children, they are more likely to use touch for caretaking-helpful purposes or to control-punish children than to comfort, express affection or touch in the context of play. However, great variance was found among individual teachers and centers in both the frequency and nature of touch. Education and positive attitudes toward physical contact were found to be related to higher rates of positive teacher touch. Center variables influencing higher rates of positive touch and lower rates of controlling touch were director attitudes and leadership styles, implicit center policies and director expression of physical affection to teachers. A small percentage of children received the majority of all types of physical contact; some children received little or no affection. The most important child variable influencing the frequency of positive teacher touch was whether the child expressed affection to caregivers. Children named as challenging by teachers received far more negative-punishing touch than those named as easy. Children identified as having a painful touch history (physical or sexual abuse; deprivation of affection) similarly received a greater frequency of negative-punishing touch than children in general. The findings were discussed in terms of the need for teacher-parent education on the developmental significance of touch and for an increase in positive touch in early childhood programs.

Subject Area

Preschool education|Developmental psychology

Recommended Citation

Lawton, Mary Beth, "Physical contact between teachers and preschool-age children in early childhood programs" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9823748.