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The preschool teacher – a threat?: On touch and gender in teacher-student interaction in preschools.
Karlstad University, Faculty of Arts and Education, Centrum för genusforskning. Karlstad University, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (starting 2013), Centrum för genusforskning.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-8019-2396
2013 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Proposal Information

In this paper we discuss the physical interaction between teachers and students in Early Childhood Education from a sociological perspective.

Physical interaction between teachers and students is an integral component of teachers’ work in preschools, and numerous psychological and neuro-psychological studies have shown that touch benefits children’s well-being (see e.g. Montagu 1986; Field 2003). Research has however also shown that while most teachers are confident that touch is beneficial for children, fewer of them actually use touch in their professional work. According to the teachers this is in part due to fears of being accused of ‘inappropriate’ touching (Owen and Gillentine 2011; cf. Stamatis 2011).

Jones (2001) and King (2004) have shown that male preschool teachers are more likely than female teachers to be suspected of inappropriate touching of children (cf. Berill & Martino 2002; Foster & Newman 2005; Sargent 2005; Gilbert & Williams 2008). But this phenomenon also affects women (Andrzejewski & Davis 2007; Åberg & Hedlin 2012a).

In an on-going project we are investigating how norms for gender are established, maintained and challenged through physical interaction between teachers and students in preschools. In this paper we will report preliminary results from the project.

The study is inspired by Piper and Stronach’s (2007) concept ‘relational touch’. This concept does not presuppose the meaning of touch in teacher-student interactions. Rather, it opens for a dynamic analysis which search for social, cultural, organizational and material factors impacting on how touch is used and interpreted by teachers in relation to the pedagogical practice. The concept of ‘relational touch’ is in alignment with how we use the concept of gender in the study. The concept of gender deals with how verbal, bodily and material aspects of social relations create a dynamic pattern in gender relations, what Connell has called a gender order (cf. Connell 2009). Thus, we understand touch and gender as norms which are created by and create social, cultural and material practices (Butler 2004).

Many European and Western societies have seen an expansion of the means to protect children. This has put focus on teachers’ subjectivities. A safe environment for the child demands a ‘safe’ teacher (cf. Johnson 2001; Jones 2004; McWilliam & Jones 2005). Although it has been claimed that the Scandinavian countries has escaped the negative discourse of the ‘safe teacher’ (cf. Cameron 2001) we have indications that this discourse is impacting also on the supposedly gender equal Utopia of Scandinavia. For example, some preschools have regulated physical interaction by prohibiting children’s nudity, and new legislation has been enacted to prevent sexual offenders to work with children (Åberg & Hedlin 2012). To understand touch in preschools it is important to grasp the globalization of this discourse, and in the paper we will relate the developments in Sweden and Scandinavia to the broader European context. We will explore the impact of external and internal governance, i.e. how media reports and changes in educational policies are connected to teachers’ means of reflexivity and self-governance in relation to touch (cf. Alison 2004).

Methodology or Methods/ Research Instruments or Sources Used

The reserch questions which we investigate in on ongoing project are the following: A) How has physical interaction between teachers and students been discussed in Swedish newspapers and preschool teachers’ professional journals in the last 30 years? B) How have the local policies of Swedish day care centers and preschools in relation to physical interaction between teachers and students changed over time? C) How do Swedish male and female preschool teachers with varying amounts of work experience reflect on touch as part of their work?We answer questions A) and B) through discourse analysis (Howarth 2000) of some 30 years of publications of nationally distributed newspapers and preschool teachers’ professional journals. For question C) we conduct reflexive interviews (Thomsson 2002) with female and male preschool teachers with varying amounts of work experience.

Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings

Most of the data for this study will be gathered during the spring of 2013. Therefore we cannot yet say that much about the results of the study. However, results from a previous interview study (Åberg & Hedlin 2012; Hedlin & Åberg 2013) with student teachers currently training to be teachers have relevance for this paper. In that study we discovered three different discursively constructed subject positions which students enacted in relation to the risks of ‘inappropriate touching’. The first was a self-disciplining position which men and women entered who felt anxieties that e.g. parents could use ‘inappropriate touch’ as a rhetorical power tool against teachers they didn’t approve of. A second position was individualistic, where students – both men and women – refused to acknowledge that the teacher’s gender had an impact on teachers’ and students’ physical interaction. The third position was a body-reflexive masculine position, entered by male students who had experienced that they had been limited or refused to perform certain ‘sensitive’ work tasks, due to their male bodies (Åberg & Hedlin 2012). In the present paper, we will further develop this analysis.


Andrzejewski, Carey E. & Davis, Heather A. (2007). Human contact in the classroom.Exploring how teachers talk about and negotiate touching students. Teaching and TeacherEducation. No. 24, pp. 779-794.Berill, Deborah, P., & Martino, Wayne (2002). ”Pedophiles and Deviats”: Exploring Issues ofSexuality, Masculinity and Normalization in the Lives of Male Teacher Candidates. In RitaM. Kissen (Ed.) Getting ready for Benjamin: Preparing teachers for sexual diversity in theclassroom. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Butler, Judith (2004). Undoing gender. New York: Routledge. Foster, Tor & Newman, Elizabeth (2005). Just a knock back? Identity bruising on the route tobecoming a male primary school teacher. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice.Vol. 11, no. 4. pp 341-358.Johnson, Richard (2001). Rethinking risk and the child body in the era of ‘no touch’. In.Alison Jones (ed.) Touchy subject. Teachers touching children. Dunedin: University ofOntago Press.Jones, Alison (2004). Social anxiety, sex, surveillance, and the ‘safe’ teacher. British Journalof Sociology of Education, Vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 53-66.King, James. R. (2004). The (im)possibility of gay teachers for young children. Theory IntoPractice, Vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 122-127.McWilliam, Erica & Jones, Alison (2005). An unprotected species? On teachers as riskysubjects. British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 109-120.Owen, Pamela M. & Gillentine, Jonathan (2011) Please touch the children. Appropriate touch in the primary classroom. Early Child Development and Care. Vol. 181, no. 6, pp. 857-868. Piper, Heather & Stronach, Ian (2007) Don’t touch! The educational story of a panic. London: Routledge. Åberg, Magnus & Hedlin, Maria (2012a). Förskolläraren – ett hot? (The preschool teacher – a threat?). Norsk pedagogisk tidskrift. Vol. 96, no. 6, pp 441-452.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
gender, preschools, students, teachers, touch
National Category
Gender Studies
Research subject
Gender Studies
URN: urn:nbn:se:kau:diva-29847OAI: diva2:658218
Educational Conference on Educational Research (ECER), Istanbul, Turkey 10-13 September 2013
Available from: 2013-10-21 Created: 2013-10-21 Last updated: 2015-08-07Bibliographically approved

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