Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Birmingham's online course, Outstanding Physical Education Lessons. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 4 seconds [CHILDREN SHOUTING]

Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds MARIE OHMAN: Hello, everybody. Nice to meet you all. My name is Marie Ohman, working at Orebro University in Sweden. I am a PE teacher, and I have worked in Physical Education teacher training program for 20 years. And amongst other things, I have taught gymnastics, dance, motor skills movements. I also do a lot of research. One of my main research projects at the moment is called Pedagogical Consequences of no touching in Physical Education. So why am I interested in this? Some years ago, a new and unexpected topic of conversation happened during a lesson, a session in which I was teaching students handstands and different kinds of boarding exercises and showing them how to assist and support these movements.

Skip to 1 minute and 11 seconds The students also undertook acrobatics and created body pyramids, and at the end of the lesson, we massaged each other’s shoulder as a way to relieving the tension in the muscles. At the end of the lesson, one of the students said, when I become a PE teacher, I will never do any of these things that we have done in class today. I was rather taken aback by this and asked the students why he said this. The response was, you can’t touch pupils today. They might think I’m a pedophile or a dirty old man. A third of the class agreed.

Skip to 1 minute and 53 seconds And I, somewhat confused, asked myself, when, how, and why did supporting a student’s handstands, acrobatic movements, and massaging become sexual harassment or sexual abuse? It also made me wonder, what are the consequences of this new way of thinking or feeling, and how might it reflect in PE teachers’ work? So public anxiety associated with intergenerational touch outside the family has increased in recent years. Child protection policies have been recognized in many countries, and some of these documents advocate very restricted use of physical contact. For example, where physical contact is necessary, be sensitive, and always avoid touching the children yourself.

Skip to 2 minutes and 52 seconds So several scholars have claimed that this policy documents have led to an institutionalization of no touching, and that especially PE teachers are confused and worried about how to act towards the students they teach. And a main concern of PE teachers seem to be the fear of being accused of sexual harassment or molestation. The 23 PE teachers involved in my study are aged between 30 and 63, and are at different stages in their careers. They teach PE in primary, secondary, and upper secondary Swedish schools located in urban and rural areas. The main question posed were, how has the increased public anxiety associated with physical contact affected your work as a teacher?

Skip to 3 minutes and 45 seconds In what kinds of pedagogical situations do you think that physical contact is pedagogically relevant, necessary, and reasonable in a PE context? And I have identified three practice-based argument that supports the use of physical contact in PE practice– touching as a precondition for a certain subject content in PE, touching as a way of establishing the conditions for learning needed in PE, and touching as to human necessity and as an expression of care. The result of the study indicates that all PE teachers are well aware of the child protection discourse and the no touch policy, but they relate to it in different ways.

Skip to 4 minutes and 34 seconds On the one hand, there is often anxiety about getting a bad reputation, and the teachers believe that the emergence of fear has affected the ways in which they work. They can say, for example, I’m always thinking about what I’m doing. I’m always aware of the risks, and I’m more on the guard now. For example, some teachers find it difficult to regulate their gaze. They avoid looking at the students’ bodies and direct their gaze elsewhere. Some of the teachers say they can never touch the student with an open hand, but always have them clenched, a clenched fist, in order to avoid possible sexual connotations.

Skip to 5 minutes and 21 seconds On the other hand, some teachers do not think that physical contact and touching is that much of a problem in their daily work. They instead emphasized the necessity of physical contact in a variety of pedagogical situations in order to do a good job and give the students opportunities to reach the curriculum goals. For example, one teacher says, it should not be a matter of no touching, but of more touching. Humans need physical touch. So my questions to you are, how do you handle these problems? Have you changed your manner of teaching in recent years? Do you feel that you have to protect your own safety? If so, in what ways? OK.

Skip to 6 minutes and 18 seconds We have so much to talk about, very important questions. And I think, if we start to discuss this, and we can share our experiences of this problem, I think that will be great. So see you soon. We’ll be in touch. Bye-bye.

Touching in physical education

Outstanding teachers are able to respond to young people in an ethical way that meets the learning needs of young people while complying with requirements of the context; for example, legal, safeguarding and ethical requirements.

As we focus more on diagnosing the needs of individual students, we are also likely to ‘see’ that there are many students who need care and attention if they are to flourish in their learning. One natural response, for example, if a student is upset, might be to hug or touch in order to indicate empathy and care.

But this is a very difficult area for teachers in some countries because any form of physical contact with pupils is discouraged. In physical education, where such contact has traditionally been part of practice (for example, supporting in gymnastics) this issue is particularly challenging.

In this video, Dr Marie Öhman from Örebro University, Sweden, introduces the concept of touching or no touching and provides some challenging considerations for ethical, legal and safe guarding issues in physical education.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Outstanding Physical Education Lessons

University of Birmingham