Does peer-to-peer massage help pupils?
It's just after lunch and 20 rosy-faced, wind-whipped five-year-olds have bundled back into class. They sit on the carpet in neat rows and silence descends.
You might think this excellent behaviour is down to a strict code of discipline, but according to the teachers at St Oswald's CE Primary School in Worcestershire, for the most part it's not. Instead, they say this calm is the result of a programme that teaches pupils peer-to-peer massage as a relaxation technique.
"We do massage sessions after lunch and within 15 minutes the class is settled," headteacher Joel Marshall explains. "We've had zero issues after break in the two and a half years we've been doing it. Before, me and my deputy would spend half an hour sorting issues such as fights."
When it comes to classroom control tactics, massage sounds about as left-field as they come. But St Oswald's isn't the only school using it. The Massage in Schools Programme (Misp) is a standardised method currently run in 36 countries. It has trained 4,000 instructors in the UK alone, although specific figures on the number of schools using it are not available.
Targeted at pupils aged 4-12, the programme teaches students a 15-move child-to-child massage routine (see panel, below).
"The Massage in Schools founders, Mia Elmster and Sylvie Htu, were both experienced in child-centred education and massage and got the idea from Sweden," explains Anne Crease, chair of the Massage in Schools Association (Misa). "Mia was developing massage programmes for children with special needs in Sweden. She was aware that in preschool there, when children lay down for a nap, sometimes staff would rub their backs to soothe them.
"When those children started school they'd ask what had happened to their massage and started to massage one another instead. It was clear that they found it relaxing and social. This gave the founders the idea for the programme."
The magic touch
So why is massage calming? According to Crease, it produces a hormone called oxytocin, which lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. What's more, she says, oxytocin is the "bonding hormone" (research shows it helps to form mother-child attachment after birth) so it may help to forge connections between classmates.
"Massage involves an element of trust, so it's more difficult to then go into the playground and start name-calling," Crease says. "It has a really positive effect on the prevention of bullying."
Castlefields Primary School in Shropshire also runs the Misa programme, and headteacher Jackie Hampson says she's seen the benefits first-hand. "The children were sometimes playing too roughly," she remembers. "Massage demonstrated the power of positive touch, rather than pushing and shoving each other around."
A safeguarding minefield?
Despite this positive testimony, you're not alone if the use of the words "massage" and "children" in the same sentence sets alarm bells ringing.
"I feel strongly that this is a huge child-safety minefield," says teacher, TESS columnist and director of ResearchED, Tom Bennett. "It normalises a level of physical intimacy that many parents would be extremely unhappy about. You're habituating children into thinking it's normal to touch people intimately and in a sensual way."
Crease, however, argues that these fears come from the word massage being "hijacked" by inappropriate connotations. She stresses that the massages take place over clothes, only on the back, neck, head, arms and hands, and always child to child.
"The touch involved is not intimate and not sensual," agrees Misa instructor Donna Davis. "Touch is a sense we use every day - adults greet each other with a handshake. It tells us about people's intentions, friendly or aggressive. Society has become quite touch-phobic but it's an important part of development and learning to interact with each other."
Hampson agrees. "We live in a world now where, especially in education, it's seen as not right to touch children," she says. "Actually, we need to teach that it's nice, for example, to put a friendly hand on somebody's shoulder when they're sad."
In terms of safeguarding, parents are informed when a school is going to launch the programme and can refuse permission for their child to participate.
But Davis says that once misconceptions have been dispelled, most parents get behind the idea. In addition, the children must ask permission to massage each other and say "thank you" afterwards. This teaches them boundaries, Crease explains.
"We're very vigilant," Hampson says. "If you think someone is being a bit rough, you have a quiet word. And obviously if a child doesn't want to do it, they can observe or read instead."
But what if a child has been a victim of abuse? Isn't there a risk that they would be disturbed by any kind of touch?
"You'd hope that you would be aware of that sort of thing," Hampson says. "We would treat that extremely carefully. We'd double-check that those children were happy to be involved and just use a couple of moves to start with and build up. But in a way, it's even more important that they learn that not all touch is horrible."
Davis offers a similar argument. "I think not addressing touch with children leaves them more vulnerable. Through the programme, they learn what is good touch as opposed to scary touch - and strategies for saying no," she says.
The trouble is, of course, that many children don't tell anyone if they have been abused. Worse, they may not want to draw attention to themselves by refusing to take part, so could be placed in a very uncomfortable situation.
Safeguarding is not the only issue here. Another of Bennett's objections is that the programme wastes time and money that could be better spent on curriculum subjects that already "suffer enough".
However, Val Weddell-Hall, headteacher at Franche Community Primary School in Worcestershire, which also runs the programme, argues that this argument is flawed. "Good schooling is not just about English and maths. You also want them to grow up to have empathy and respect," she says.
And the time spent on massage could pay off in the long run; a study published in the journal Educational Psychology in Practice found that the massage programme improved children's concentration.
The programme can also be used as a direct learning aid through "massage stories", advocates say. A popular one is about the Great Fire of London, where a kneading movement represents the baker's house and a stroking motion is the fire.
"Through the stories, children get visual, auditory and kinaesthetic input, all aiding memory," Crease says. "Research shows that if you use your body when learning, you tend to remember things better."
It should be noted that the evidence to support massage in schools lacks a mass of published independent studies (bit.lyMassageinSchools). But the existing evidence is positive, as are the testimonials from schools. And proponents say there has never been a better time to introduce it.
"Children spend a lot of time in an insular way these days, on PlayStations and iPads," Hampson says. "This is something different, which involves looking at each other, waiting for responses and learning to read facial expressions."
As persuasive as the arguments may be, however, for many teachers - and parents - overcoming their natural wariness around massage in schools is going to be a massive hurdle. Whether that says more about the culture in schools and society at large than the idea itself, however, is open to debate.
Jessica Powell is a freelance writer who specialises in children's and women's issues
The Massage in Schools method
These are two of the moves used in a Massage in Schools Programme session:
Name: Climbing down the rope Action: Kneel down to one side of the person receiving the massage. Place one hand on their upper arm. Press gently and "climb" your hands down to their palm and back up.
Targets: Upper arm, forearm, and hands.
Name: Eye glasses Action: Make three circles around the shoulder blades. Glide hands along to the middle of the upper arms and gently "hug" the arms.
Targets: Back, shoulder blades and upper arms.
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