A touching story of peer massage in a special school
“Would you like a massage?” This might seem like a surprising question to hear in a classroom, but it’s one that’s been asked on a daily basis for over a year at Highbury Special School in Rastrick, West Yorkshire.
The massage in question is peer massage, where children massage each other through light clothing, guided by an adult who leads a routine lasting five minutes or more. The routines are linked to curriculum subjects such as literacy, science or personal, social, health and economic education. Peer massage can reduce anxiety, aggression and bullying, while improving peer relationships, behaviour and concentration, and children and teachers alike love it.
Massage is a natural form of healing and comfort. Indeed, it is a normal human instinct to hug a crying child or to try to “rub the pain better”. Many teachers, though, are afraid to follow their instincts, possibly because they are confused by what is considered appropriate in today’s climate of child protection legislation. So it is important, at the outset, to address any misconceptions that school staff and parents may have, and there are a number of key elements to peer massage which should help to reassure in this respect:
- strokes are done through light clothing
- massage is always peer to peer. Children massage each other, guided by an adult. The adult never touches the children and strokes are modelled on other adults or in the air. The adult’s role is to lead the children through the routine. Exceptions may be made to this rule for some children with particular special needs who need a support worker to help them participate
- permission must be given before massage can proceed. Strong emphasis is placed on consent; no child is ever forced to take part or asked to explain their reasons for not wanting to participate. In this way, children begin to develop a sense of responsibility over their own body, and a respect for others’ wishes. They start to distinguish between positive and negative touch and understand that touching without permission is unacceptable.
Peer massage can be used across the curriculum and easily incorporated into the timetable. Routines can be as long or short as needed and strokes are easily adapted to reflect any curriculum area, for example, poems, stories or science topics like the water cycle or the solar system. Peer massage is an excellent way of reaching children with a kinaesthetic learning style and of meeting multi-sensory teaching objectives.
Highbury Special School is just one of an increasing number of primary schools across the UK to take a positive approach and put massage on the timetable. On the day I visited the school, which caters for about 50 primary-aged children with profound multiple learning difficulties, Class 4 were using peer massage in their literacy lesson. They were working from a book called The King’s Dinner. Part of the story focuses on the making of the King’s meal, and this provided an ideal basis for a peer massage routine, including actions for stirring, rolling, peeling and slicing. The strokes formed a short routine performed on arms, legs and backs. The children sang the words as they did the actions and class teacher Rachel noticed that they were clearly beginning to anticipate what next comes next. “There’s usually lots of giggling”, said Rachel, “and the repetitions are ideal for this group. The children love the actions and it’s good for after lunch and quiet times.”
Some children are initially reluctant to take part. Kierstie, the teacher of Class 2 at Highbury, found that her group, predominantly of children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) made it clear that they didn’t want to join in. They began by observing the other children and gradually participated at their own level. “They might accept it on the hands or arms”, said Kierstie, “but by the end of the year all of them had settled into peer massage well.”
Peer massage can be of benefit to children with a range of SEN. Research indicates that regular massage helps autistic children to interpret emotions and reduce repetitive behaviours. This may be due to raised levels of oxytocin, known as a “feel good” hormone, which is released into the bloodstream as a consequence of massage. “He didn’t like anyone close to him at all, adult or child,” said Kierstie of a child in her class with autism, “but by the end he would accept anybody doing it and he would give it back as well. I would say it is a big success, particularly with the ASD children.”
Children with tactile sensitivity have benefited too. Rachel found that her class had “become much more tactile with each other [since taking part in peer massage] without going over the top. It’s really broken down that shying away response they sometimes have to physical contact”, she said.
Peer massage has also been beneficial for children in wheelchairs. “It has provided a really good way of developing their physical skills”, said Kierstie. “They’re supported in their standing frames and peer massage encourages them to use their hands. Some children are hemiplegic and we always encourage them to use both hands together, so there are benefits for their physical management plan.”
Peer massage can also help schools meet the objectives of Every Child Matters, Healthy Schools and Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning programmes. Using non-verbal signals, children are encouraged to listen and respond to their partner’s needs throughout, for example by adjusting the pressure of strokes or avoiding a sensitive area. Peer massage can aid relaxation, improve emotional literacy and resilience in children and foster a more inclusive atmosphere throughout the school.
Highbury’s Headteacher, Pam Sellars, has seen how pupils have learned to co-operate. “It’s a calm part of the day that the children enjoy”, she says. “One of the things that pleases me the most is seeing children who don’t always relate to each other, working together and interacting together.”
In Sweden, peer massage has long been part of the school curriculum and is embedded in violence prevention programmes. Over the last 20 years, peer massage has spread to Australia, the USA and, increasingly, the United Kingdom. The movement is strengthened by the results of research studies (many carried out by the Touch Research Institute, part of the Miami University of Medicine) indicating that regular massage brings physical and physiological benefits, as well as enhanced concentration and improved mathematical ability in certain groups of children.
The peer massage movement is self regulating. A good trainer will have some knowledge or experience of anatomy and physiology as well as experience of special and mainstream schools. A simple internet search will reveal hundreds of UK schools which are enjoying the benefits of peer massage. Pam Sellars, is convinced of the merits of peer massage for her children. “I think it has got a place in the school curriculum”, she says, “and I’m intending to carry it on.”
Trizia Wells works for Calderdale Parent Partnership Service and is a peer massage instructor.
Further information about peer massage and touch therapy is available from:
Massage in Schools Association:
Touch Research Institute:
This article was first published in issue 48 (September/October 2010) of SEN Magazine.