The primary teachers' union will tell its members it is all right to touch children to comfort or praise them, in a major shift in its advice about physical contact.

The New Zealand Educational Institute, which represents staff at primary schools, early childcare centres and special education centres, will launch its new guidelines on physical contact at its annual conference in Wellington today.

The guidelines encourage "positive and affirming" contact to provide emotional support or to praise a child.

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The guidelines are more liberal than the 1998 code, which was introduced following widespread community concern after Peter Ellis was convicted for sexually abusing children at the Christchurch Civic Childcare Centre.

The 1998 code warned touching could be misconstrued and placed staff at the risk of assault or indecency allegations. It said staff and teachers should explain to children why a teacher withdrew from them.

In contrast, the new document notes contact is important to build a caring community and says staff who withdraw or are guarded in interacting with students "may not be acting as positive role models".

The code says teachers must use common sense, but touching was acceptable when "carried out in a professional and responsible manner that is age appropriate".

Examples of appropriate touching included "hugging or placing a supportive arm across a child's shoulders but only when and where needed".

The union began revising its guide in 2003 after research by Auckland University professor of education Alison Jones showed the anti-touching policy was causing anxiety for teachers.

NZEI chairwoman Irene Cooper said staff still needed to be mindful that they did not put themselves at risk of allegations, but the new guidelines better reflected the realities of the school community.

The old code was a response to the high level of anxiety in the community in the 1990s.

"Thankfully, most of the community have learned some lessons from what happened at that time."

She said it was important for schools and centres to develop specific policies about physical contact, after asking parents from the various cultures at a school what they considered appropriate.

The guidelines say school policies should include ways to protect staff from untrue allegations. They advise enlisting witnesses to any physical contact when possible and for rooms to have high visibility, such as with windows.

Yesterday, Professor Jones welcomed the new guidelines.

"The old code of conduct really turned all teachers into potential paedophiles and just reinforced social anxieties. This does not do that, so I'm delighted at the shift."

School Trustees Association head Chris Haines expected schools to consult on the guidelines and said if parents liked it, schools should go ahead.

"There has always got to be protection for children, but sometimes we have got tied up with some of this PC stuff.

"It is unfortunate that there were high-profile cases which saw everyone withdraw from things which can be quite a natural part of teaching."

The guidelines cover all 45,000 members of NZEI, including teachers, principals, support staff and special education workers.

Men avoided 'hysteria'

An early-childhood education advocate says "the paedophile hysteria" of the 1990s is the reason just 1 per cent of early education workers are male.

Early Childhood Council chief executive Sue Thorne said the shortage of men working in the sector was a "national disgrace" and New Zealand compared badly with other well-developed countries.

Her comments follow the release of a paper by researcher Sarah Farquhar, who said a 1 per cent male workforce made early childhood education the "pinkest" in New Zealand - compared with nursing which was 6.5 per cent male and flight attendants, 33 per cent of whom are male.

Men at Work: Sexism in Early Childhood Education calls for a debate on the need for men in the sector and says initiatives such as publicity campaigns and higher teacher salaries had not attracted men to the sector.

Ms Thorne said men no longer felt welcome in childcare because they feared they would be treated with suspicion. A concerted effort was needed to get more men into the workforce.

Tau Henare, National's spokesman on early childhood education, said the best way for boys to develop learning skills was from men.