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The Compelling Benefits of Peer Massage in School

A science-based initiative to mitigate children’s long term stress, decrease bullying and teach respect and consent.
Gemma Clark shares what she learned about peer massage.

Gemma C Relax

As we continue to adapt to these strange and ever-changing times brought on by the Covid 19 pandemic, it is an ideal time to incorporate peer massage into your daily class routine. This may sound like quite a radical idea, but the Massage in Schools Programme is undoubtedly the best CPD I have ever done in my career. Peer massage programmes are arguably one of the least known but most effective wellbeing initiatives for the primary and early years settings. Teachers who train in peer massage programmes learn to guide children through a simple routine. These routines involve doing ‘bunny hops’ on the palm of their partner’s hand or doing a ‘bear walk’ with their hands on their back. The massage is done on ‘safe’ areas of the body (back, neck, head, arms, shoulders and hands) and one of the most crucial elements is that the children must ask permission before massaging a friend. Every child is always free to say yes or no. This in itself is an important lesson in respect and consent.

As well as peer massage’s great potential for creativity and building language skills (my classes have developed their own Halloween, Christmas and Bonfire Night massage stories and routines), this scientifically-backed approach (ÉTUDES-SC.pdf), offers a wealth of health and wellbeing benefits which are invaluable in the current situation.

The last two years have undoubtedly been a highly stressful time for everyone in education. When we are stressed, our bodies release the hormone, cortisol which shuts down body systems that aren’t required while we are in a fight or flight state (such as the digestive system). Prolonged, heightened cortisol levels can eventually inhibit the immune system (making us more vulnerable to viruses). Massage is proven to reduce cortisol levels and increase our oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is a feel-good hormone which is linked to relaxation and pro-social behaviours (learning about the effects of these hormones can make an interesting science lesson).

Studies have shown ( ), that schools who use peer massage programmes report improved social cohesion among pupils, decreased bullying and children being calmer and more relaxed. Once the children have learned a simple massage routine it takes only 10 minutes a day. The time invested pays itself back as children become increasingly more settled, relaxed and therefore ready to learn. Peer massage activities can be a useful tool to help children settle after lunch break or to help them to deal with a lesson that may cause them anxiety (‘maths anxiety’ for example is becoming something more documented and recognised). Most importantly, children who choose to participate enjoy the activities and will often say that they feel better and sleep better at night.

As children face the continuing disruption of the pandemic, soaring inflation and worry about the Ukraine invasion, peer massage is an intervention that can help mitigate some of the chronic stress that children are experiencing. Massage routines have been successfully adapted to be ‘Covid safe’, with many schools running a risk assessed and slightly adjusted version of their programmes (for example, children using hand sanitiser before and after massage and only doing strokes on the back of the body to avoid face to face contact). Nothing has been normal during Covid-19, but we can use this as an opportunity for outside-the-box thinking and to consider different approaches in improving children’s physical and mental health.

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The author

Gemma Clark is a Scottish primary teacher, active trade union member and writer concerned with many issues including women’s rights and school safety. She has appeared on ITV news to discuss safety mitigations during the Covid 19 pandemic and regularly writes for the Times Educational Supplement. She has a passion for the wellbeing of school staff and children and is a qualified Children and Family Yoga Instructor, and Massage in Schools instructor. Gemma also believes in teacher allyship and supports anti-racist education and the decolonisation of the curriculum. She is an advocate for new the Scottish LGBT inclusion policy and a founding member and admin of a wellbeing group set up to support teachers in Scotland during the pandemic.

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