Learning compassionate touch has changed Molly Oto’s classroom. Her students are calmer. They are more connected—and they’ve learned it’s okay to say no to being touched.
As a Valley Montessori School toddler teacher in Livermore, California, Oto says her students are positively responding to a new touch curriculum that officially launched this year.
The Healthy Compassionate Touch Extension Program teaches children and educators how to recognize and use touch that is nurturing and helpful, and how to avoid touch that isn’t.
Best of all, it’s a free program offered through the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, a charitable organization dedicated to bringing Social-Emotional Learning access to classrooms, with the ultimate goal of helping make schools safer places.
Helping Students Choose Love
The Choose Love Movement’s core Choose Love enrichment program is a free, downloadable program for students in Pre-K through 12th grade. The program gives educators a way to help students show love, including appropriate touch, in any situation to promote a safe classroom atmosphere.
“I love the willingness the children have to engage in positive options in social situations,” said Oto. “By nature, children want safety, happiness and for others to smile and be peaceful. This program helps teach them real examples of how to give respect and receive love in all its forms.”
Founded by Scarlett Lewis, the mother of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Jesse Lewis, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement has the goal of spreading compassion throughout the education system through Social-Emotional Learning methods such as touch.
The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement
Days before Jesse died, he wrote “Norturting Helinn Love” (Nurturing, Healing Love) on a kitchen chalkboard at home.
It is with that very sentiment Lewis founded her organization, which seeks to give children ways to feel secure, manage emotions and create meaningful connections.
It’s Lewis’ conviction that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter himself might have benefited from such resources early on. It’s also her sincere hope that schools take Social-Emotional Learning implementation seriously to help prevent such tragedies from happening again.
Impact of Social-Emotional Learning
Research, including a 2017 meta-analysis of 82 research studies involving around 100,000 student subjects, shows those who use Social-Emotional Learning are able to better self-regulate emotions, show empathy for others and maintain positive relationships.
Getting free tools like the Healthy Compassionate Touch Program into every school is Lewis’ goal.
“There’s no social and emotional intelligence gene,” said Lewis. “We have to learn these tools and skills. There are decades of research that social and emotional learning is a vital part that positively impacts a child’s entire life. I would argue it’s the number-one way to have a safe school.”
For the touch extension program, Lewis partnered with friend and CranioSacral Therapist Kate Mackinnon, PT, CST-D, who suggested touch could be helpful in promoting the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement ideals, which include managing emotions, establishing positive friendships, and showing empathy and compassion for other people.
“Touch is such a vital way of connecting and providing emotional support,” said Mackinnon, who also has extensive pediatric training as a physical therapist. “I wanted to address that piece. I want it to inspire.”
Releasing Touch Taboos
After spending time in classrooms, both Lewis and Mackinnon found that students felt touch was “creepy,” while teachers longed for better connections with their students.
Mackinnon said touch in the education system is often too taboo to talk about, especially in an environment that has seen allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate student-teacher relations.
“As human beings, we are more than capable of having healthy discussions and recognizing [touch] can create great harm, but we shouldn’t deny the goodness that can come on the other end of the spectrum,” Mackinnon said.
Oto agreed with Mackinnon. “I worry when I read that love and touch is slipping away from education,” she said. “ It is evident to me when I turn on the television that our society needs more compassion and kindness.”
Early Success Stories
Even though the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement’s Healthy Compassionate Touch Program is still relatively new, the pilot programs currently being rolled out in schools in California, where Mackinnon lives, show great promise.
For example, one Spanish teacher demonstrated the effectiveness of healthy touch and human connectedness in a very simple experiment.
She observed that many of her students were disconnected from her and one another, texting on their phones as they walked out of her classroom. The teacher started requiring her students to give high fives as they exited her class. A small and momentary touch, but a touch nonetheless.
Within a short time, the result was more eye contact and better connection, Mackinnon said.
“The classroom transformed,” said Mackinnon. “They were way more connected with her. They were seeking her out.”
Another part of the Healthy Compassionate Touch program is teaching boundaries, Mackinnon said. For example, many young toddler teachers hug their students every day. Sometimes, though, toddlers may not want someone in their space.
Those moments must be respected, Mackinnon said, in order for students to feel empowered that they can say no to unwanted touch.
The change among classroom social interactions has been undeniable, according to parents, students and educators who have participated in Choose Love.
Spreading the Word About Choose Love
The Choose Love Enrichment Program will also be rolled out across the state of New Hampshire as part of the state’s dedication to Social-Emotional Learning and making school safety preparedness a priority.
Lewis and Mackinnon hope other states follow suit in making a Social-Emotional Learning curriculum a priority as a crucial first step into creating a safer, more nurturing educational environment.
For teachers, the spreading of connection and love throughout classrooms has been the most enjoyable part of incorporating the program into their days.
“When our students practice patient interactions and gentle touch within their classroom communities, they begin to develop wonderful habits and compassionate strategies which they can apply outside of school as well,” explained Oto. “Every good change begins with a small seed.”
Even though Oto’s students are young—18 months to 3 years old—the impact on their social and emotional learning has been huge, she said.
Getting tissues for a crying friend or asking permission to sit close to someone allows the children to learn how to show compassion and set boundaries early on, she said. In her opinion, more gentle touch in classrooms wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Based on the success of the initial pilot program, Social-Emotional Learning is taking hold in classrooms. Nearly 7,000 educators have downloaded the free program, and it’s being taught in more than 50 nations, according to the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement website.
Can Healthy Touch Help Make Schools Safer?
In addition to the core curriculum and touch program, educators can access The Tapping Solution Foundation and Zensational Kids programs for free to teach students stress relief and mindfulness practices in school.
Lewis in particular feels very strongly that the installation of such programs could help prevent future school shootings; she recognizes Social-Emotional Learning’s potential to reach even seemingly unreachable students.
“He was a human being. He was a human being in pain,” said Lewis of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza, who killed 28 people, including himself, on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut. “There are millions of these human beings in pain across the world. As a society, we need to take responsibility and show love and compassion.”
Mackinnon couldn’t agree more. She’s seen a lot of hurt and personal disconnect in speaking with students at schools. Some students she’s talked to rarely receive any type of loving touch at home, and they welcomed the idea of a warm touch at school, she said.
The ultimate goal of Mackinnon’s program within the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement is simple, but not necessarily easy.
She and Lewis are up for the challenge anyway.
“I want to be part of the change to create the decrease in the level of [school] violence,” said Mackinnon. “The biggest thing I heard when I spoke to high schoolers is they are just craving connection. If we can create a more connected community within the schools and the places we live in, that would be my dream fulfilled.”
About the Author:
Seraine Page is an award-winning journalist based out of Florida. She enjoys writing about health, wellness and travel. Her work has been featured online for sites like SANDBOXX, Redbubble, Teespring, DAYSPA Magazine and others. Page is a regular contributor to MASSAGE Magazine, and she recently wrote “At the Caring Place, Cancer Patients’ Fear, Anger and Anxiety Are Soothed by Massage” for massagemag.com.