When Scarlett Lewis, founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, asks children across the United States what love looks like, they almost always turn to one another and give a hug or touch in some way. Touch is one of the strongest tools for building love and connection, and when used appropriately, it shapes bonds, builds self-esteem and encourages a positive outlook.
Touch is a vital way of connecting and providing emotional support. Yet there seems to be an increasing trend of kids and adults avoiding touch because there is a belief that it will protect vulnerable members of our society from harmful or abusive touch. It’s noticeably absent from many schools, where children need touch, especially if they’re being neglected at home. In fact, it’s absent in the values portrayed in television and other media.
I have seen no evidence that avoiding touch provides protection. Actually, we might be creating more harm by having no-touch policies. We need to create a culture of healthy compassionate touch.
As human beings, I believe that we are more than capable of having the discussions required to create safe environments for healthy compassionate touch. In contrast to no-touch policies, I think that when we provide nurturing environments where touch can be used to soothe and console one another, we are allowing our children to experience and know what healthy touch is and model healthy boundaries. This gives a child a benchmark so they know when something does not feel right and to get help.
The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement (JLCL), which provides a free social-emotional learning program from preschool to 12th grade, introduces touch in a practical and easy way. As part of the JLCL Integration Program, a free Healthy Compassionate Touch (HCT) program is provided for teachers and children to learn how to recognize and use touch that is nurturing and helpful, and how to avoid touch that isn’t. The program helps open a conversation how touch can be used to comfort a friend.
People implementing practices from the HCT program have found surprising results. After using HCT in her classroom for over a trimester, Mrs. Maria Elena Ventura at Granada High School in Livermore senses a difference in her students. She’s a high school Spanish teacher who moved from El Salvador many years ago.
After helping to create one of the high school videos of the Healthy Compassionate Touch program, Mrs. Ventura decided to experiment. She stood at the doorway of her classroom each day prior to the start of class and offered each student a “high five” as they entered. She noticed an instant change in the students; they gave her more eye contact and were more willing to speak Spanish in class. She even felt a deeper connection with her students. They became more of a community, unified and positive.
A 2017 meta-analysis of 82 research studies involving around 100,000 students supports Mrs. Ventura’s observations. The report found that students who participated in social-emotional learning programs are able to better self-regulate emotions, show empathy for others and maintain positive relationships. The Jesse Lewis Choose Love curriculum is the only program to include touch in this type of learning.
With decades of experience as a physical therapist, I see on a daily basis how touch improves body function and decreases pain. I also have noticed how precise my touch has become in being able to detect subtle changes in the body and the shifting emotional states that can go along with the physical changes. Most of us can remember a time when a safe reassuring touch helped us feel calmer, loved and nurtured. These qualities are described in depth in this article about the Power of Touch.
Because I feel strongly about this, I co-founded TouchMatters with my colleague Robyn Scherr, who is a California certified massage therapist. We’re dedicated to deepening health and connection through skillful and compassionate touch. Our mission is to help everyone better understand the power of touch and how it can be used to relieve pain, heal traumas, feel a better sense of connection and to improve our communication. Healthy compassionate touch in our families and schools, and skillful touch in the medical profession, can help reduce the incidence and negative effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Our workshop, Healthy Compassionate Touch for Everyone, provides simple hands-on techniques on how to stay present even when those around you are in distress. Through touch, we can promote relaxation and foster confidence. We tune into the unique ways our bodies communicate with us to find health and wellbeing.
You can try a simple exercise at home to foster healthy touch in your life. When someone you know has been physically or emotionally hurt, ask if you can put your hands on the place that is hurting. First, make sure you feel comfortable and settled in your own body, then gently place your hands on the part of their body that they give you permission to touch, and that you are comfortable touching. While touching the other person, simply think about something you love. This could even be the person you are touching. Picture sending that love in through your hands and inviting the support offered to help in any way possible. Children can learn this, too! This video will guide you.