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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Story of a hug

Every once in a while I see posts about the benefits of hugs (touch) and babies... and just how it impacts the brain and development of the child. Often these posts are shared in groups/pages about early childhood education, and most often as a reaction to the fact that some settings are writing no-hug policies.

While I think physical contact is incredibly important to the well-being and development of each child, I talked about this several times in Athens, both in my keynote at the Play on Early Education Conference and also in the pre-conference workshops with parents and teachers - haptic communication is a vital part of our work, but I also think we cannot just go round hugging every child as a pedagogical plan to develop their brains... we need to think about consent.

As a person who does not keen on hugging (especially as a child), and also the mother of children where hugging/touch is not something they are keen on outside of the family, I think we have to be aware of how we reach out to others and also what sort of haptic communication we are offering (haptic relates to touch/contact). This is why I react to these posts that ONLY talk about the positive benefits of hugging as if this is something we must all do to all children to promote their learning. Well-being, feeling safe will allow children the freedom to explore, play and learn - as they will feel safe enough to take risks. It's not the touching and the hugging, but the love, the genuine emotion of understanding the need of each child and the group. As an early years educator I have learned to hug and touch to meet the needs of the children... it has come out of empathy and an intellectual place. I have a huge respect for children who do not want to be touched and will wait for a signal, or will gently test to see if a hand on an arm, or holding a hand is what they need... sometimes it is just about sitting next to them... that is contact enough. A hug or touch is a sensory experience. And if you are a person that is easily sensory overloaded then it can be difficult to appreciate the intentions of the hugger as all you focus on is the overload sensory experience and how to deal with that. I have worked with children that have needed a firm hand rather than a light touch - the firmness was a better feel than the light touch which triggered a kind of discomfort - some children love to be tickled... others experience it as pain. I worked with one child that would stim a lot when very excited... hands waving so much she was unable to eat her apple, but if I applied pressure to her back in an up and down movement she was able to release the joy through me and focus on her apple. The moment I stopped was the moment the stimming started. I have no problem with stimming, but it was getting in the way of her eating her apple with the other children, and this small gesture enable her to be included in the group activity. what it boils down to is love, as I have already mentioned... Jools Page has researched and written about Professional Love which I have written about on numerous occasions on my blog over the years. This is such an essential part of working with people. Not just young children... but all people. I think if we are coming from a place of professional love then we are going to be incorporating consent too, it is about showing care for the whole child/person and being aware of their emotional needs... understanding when a hug and when touch are essential to enabling the child to develop and reach their own potential, and also understand what form of touch is the most supportive and caring and respectful in the situation.Equally it is also understanding when not to hug. There is a huge need for phronesis.

During one of the many chats I had with participants at the conference in the last few days the topic moved to children with trauma and how can we meet the needs of these children? Love was the answer... lots of it... but not that kind where loved is a hands on hugging, but the kind of love that listens to the child, allows the child to build trust, and that the physical contact starts when the child trusts. For many children in trauma physical contact can be perceived in a totally different way from what we intend it... it can be threatening, it can trigger bad memories... we need to have patience and time. LOVE is not just hugs... it is listening, it is trust, it is understanding, it is empathy, it is patience. I have read about children (albeit older ones) receiving electric shocks in a school in Massachusetts as part of their education... to condition them... and from what I can gather it is clear that the shocks are not being used in a therapeutic way but more as a way of control and punishment.

Professional love should be something that is used throughout the education system. Not just the youngest children. We see the lengths teachers go to protect their children in USA and the awful mass-shootings in schools... it is clear that professional love happens... but maybe it should become more official and better understood of what is and what is not professional love... control is not love. If you explore what the word love means you will see there is great diversity in its definitions... but essentially it involves caring for, or identifying with another. Also as I explored love I cam across the chinese word REN... Confucius never apparently completely defined it, because of its diversity... but it kind of comes back to love, humanity and interactions with others. Which is what we want for our children in schools... and this can mean touch and hugs. There is the science (neuroscience) to back up the effects of touch - there is research about the catastrophic effects of when children do not get the physical contact that they need... (see links below)... we need to ensure we are meeting the needs of the WHOLE child, and also giving space for the diversity of love and the diversity of haptic communication. Relationships are key. Children who feel safe experience the freedom to explore, play and learn.

Haptic communication, love, feeling safe are all essential components of Original Learning, as the aim is to facilitate the child's own learning as an individual and in a group. So taking the time to reflect on how you show love to children is important.

links for further reading Tracey Seed - Cuddling Not touching - likened to child abuse På svenska - in Swedish... research projects about touch in preschools - necessary or bad? No touching kids policies is good for teachers - not quite the text I was expecting to read... as it seems to be written by a person who does not like being touched, but still important to read. Losing Touch - how teachers are afraid to have physical contact with children in their care. What the lack of affection can do to you The Influence of touch on child development The human touch: a neglected feeling - the importance of touch throughout life Touching Empathy - that lack of physical touch can actually kill babies...

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