Small children can get quite noisy and frenetic. It can take time to calm them down. Angela Youngman investigated one very popular method – to teach the children to give and receive simple massage.

An offshoot of the infant massage movement, the Massage in Schools Programme (MISP) is now in use in over 100 schools nationwide. The number of participating schools is increasing fast, with more training courses constantly being introduced to meet demand: there are currently over 1,000 instructors across the country. Aimed at children aged between four and 12 years old, the programme is showing startling results. Participating children become calmer, more relaxed, concentration levels increase and they learn how to respect each other. Bullying and aggressive behaviour is reduced. No child under four participates in the programme, as they do not have the neural or muscular ability required for the activity.

Child protection

As all massage is undertaken fully clothed and by the children themselves. There is no compulsion for a child to participate – if they wish to sit and watch they can. If they do not like part of the massage and do not want it to continue they can say so. This empowers the children and gives them control over what is happening. They learn that it is possible to say ‘no’. It also enables them to learn about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ touch as they have to continually ask the other child questions  such as ‘Do you like this?’ ‘Is this stroke too strong or too soft?’ ‘Do you want me to continue doing this?’

Once introduced into a school, the massage programme becomes a daily 10-minute routine on the head, shoulders, back and arms. It is undertaken with the massage giver standing behind the other child. The child giving the massage has to ask the other child’s permission before touching and at the end the recipient has to say thank you.   Children learn simple strokes designed to relax muscles and ease tension. This is followed by touch-related games, for example, pretending to write letters, plant a garden or create a pizza on each other’s backs.

It can take days or weeks for the children to learn the strokes. Some children find that they have a special gift, while others are less proficient. Trainer Kate Pidgeon-Owen comments, ‘One school where I introduced it  saw one boy taking six weeks to get the strokes. The reason it took this long was because this boy was so caring, he wanted to get it right. After six weeks, he was the one who taught the strokes to new children joining the group. This increased his self esteem. In nurseries, younger children look forward to the time when they can join in. There is anticipation that when they are four, this is something you get to do.’

Training and preparation

Introducing the programme into a school involves a teacher being sent on a special Massage in Schools weekend course. When they return to the school, they teach the techniques to the children. This is done by demonstrating the strokes on another teacher while the children watch and copy.

It is recommended that before the programme is introduced, a full discussion with governors, teachers and parents takes place, outlining exactly what the massage involves.

Reactions from children and teachers have been very positive. Typical comments from children include  ‘Massage makes me feel happy’, ‘It relaxes you and makes you think’, ‘It is really good’. John Stead NSPCC education adviser and DfES anti-bullying coordinator for West Yorkshire comments, ‘It is a fun preventative strategy for promoting respect and reducing bullying. It is a strategy I feel should be considered by all schools.’

Sue Eagle is headteacher of Tuckswood First School, Norwich. The school introduced the MISP a year ago into its reception class and it is now being introduced into other classes. She comments, ‘When children come into the reception class, the little ones are quick with rough and tumble and quick to punch. We have found that the massage programme calmed them down and made them respect each other. By learning to ask permission before they touched another child, they were less likely to hit them later.’

The benefits have been immense as she explains: ‘It has had an observable calming effect. Respect is shown between adults and children, and children and children.  They realise they can say no. Sometimes they sit at a table and do the actions on the table, and join in the next time. It seems to calm them and get them ready for learning. We usually do it first thing in the afternoon; afterwards they go into different learning groups perhaps role play, or in a group with the teacher. It helps to settle them and improves their concentration levels. The children love their massage.

‘In both year groups there is a significant proportion with special needs. By giving and receiving massage they learn about respect and gain self-esteem. One lass is in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy; she sits on her support worker’s lap to give the massage. It makes her part of it; she is not excluded. We have got some real alpha males among the boys who have found a real talent for massage.’

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There are courses taking place nationwide, including in London, Windsor, Birmingham, Hampshire and Suffolk.