It calms troubled children and gets everyone in the right mood to learn. Yet massage remains controversial. If only others could see the benefits, its advocates tell Hannah Frankel
At first, Tony Lavatt wasn't sure he wanted his school associated with massage. "I was uneasy with the idea of young children touching each other," admits the head of The Vale First and Middle School in Worthing, West Sussex. "I was concerned about parents' perceptions and the repercussions." But then he sat down and learned what it involves.
The Massage in Schools Programme (MISP) is based on a Swedish model that was introduced to the UK seven years ago. Now 1,000 British primary schools put aside about 10 minutes a day for their fully-clothed pupils to calmly massage or trace shapes on their partner's head, shoulders, neck and back. The massage strokes, which are demonstrated by the teacher on another adult, or a chair, can be anything from the "bear-walk" to the "cat grip" or "bunny-hop", but the result is the same: pupils are left relaxed and ready to learn.
"We initially trialled it with just a few year groups and the results were amazing," says Tony. "One boy who was often in trouble for fighting told me that it calmed him. A girl in reception said she liked it because it made her friend feel nice. Now massage is an integral part of the whole school."
The Vale has always focused on boosting its pupils' self-esteem. Pupils take turns to be "child of the week", who leaves the room while their classmates note down everything positive about them. The pupil then returns to a round of applause and can read all the good things hisher peers have written about himher.
The information is typed up and is put on the wall for a week, with a photo, before being sent home. Similar schemes, whereby a teacher nominates a "brain box" of the week or someone who has tried really hard, are equally successful.
"During my 26 years as head, I've seen the massive impact of positive thinking," says Tony. "Children like to have their self-esteem boosted. Massage is another way of doing this." Because pupils must give permission, it helps them trust and respect each other and is a powerful antidote to bullying.
It also re-introduces the role of positive physical touch, says Debbie Scolfield, the pastoral co-ordinator at Top o'th' Brow Primary School in Bolton. "Physical contact is a rare thing in today's schools, even in PE, but it has so many benefits."
Despite its cheerful name, Top o'th' Brow has its fair share of challenges. Unemployment and poverty are widespread in the area and 80 per cent of pupils are on free school meals.
Four years ago it created a quiet room for pupils. Peer to peer massage seemed the logical next step. "Instead of kicking off and throwing a chair, pupils are much more able to rationalise and articulate their feelings now," says Debbie.
Pupils have a 15 minute massage after break or lunchtime to transfer from play to work. They settle more quickly and teachers have noticed an increase in concentration.
Jackie Gunn, a teaching assistant at Widewell Primary School in Plymouth, introduced massage among key stage 2 pupils in 2005. Now it is a permanent feature for everyone. "The girls enjoy it more, but it helps boys who may have behavioural issues," she says. "They go home and massage their parents or siblings or even pets.
"It's had a big effect on safe touch. The children know they can say 'no' and that their partner has to respect their decision. In that way, they're more considerate with one another, they thank each other, and it helps them bond as a class, especially in Year 1." Carol Trower, chair of MISP in the UK, says all children would benefit from a daily nurturing touch. "This programme ticks a lot of boxes," she says. "It works particularly well in primary schools, although it can also break down barriers and tensions between new Year 7s as well. It increases children's ability to socialise and make friends, and, because it reduces stress levels, it helps the brain become more receptive to information."
She recommends massage, perhaps with music, first thing. Each session is usually 10 minutes, but she is adamant that it saves time. "Instead of spending half the day trying to sort out fights, pupils can be ready to learn within a very short amount of time, and fights are virtually unheard of," she says. "Once it's part of your daily routine, teachers say they can't do without it."
Information and two-day training courses are available at: www.massageinschools.com
How it works
To understand how peer massage works, you need look no further than the neurological system. Massage increases levels of the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Oxytocin, another hormone that relieves stress and is thought to help humans bond with one another, is also released. The hormonal changes result in happier, calmer and more focused pupils, teachers report.
Clinical trials documented by the Touch Research Institute, based at the University of Miami, show that massage can:
Improve behavioural problems
Help counter Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)