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Massage in Schools to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

by Solveig Berggren(more info)

listed in anxiety, originally published in issue 100 - June 2004

I have been a skilled sports massage therapist since 1991 and I started to introduce massage into schools in the south of Sweden in 1996. For me, it began with a project I had in a school for 4th graders (10-year-old children) about the environment. I met a lot of stressed, anxious children, the noise level was very high – so being a therapist I thought that massage would help these children to calm down and relax.

Touch is the first communication a baby receives when entering the world. From then on touch exudes feelings of safety, emotional satisfaction, warmth, love, reassurance and affection and can serve to facilitate the bonding and attachment process. Our need to touch and to be touched is something we are born with.

Research in neuroscience has shown that touch is necessary for human development and that a lack of touch damages not only individuals, but our whole society. Human touch and love is essential to health. A lack of stimulus and touch very early on causes the stress hormone, cortisol to be released, which creates a toxic brain environment and can damage certain brain structures.

Children performing massage

Children performing massage

During the critical period of development following birth, the infant brain is undergoing a massive growth of neural connections. Synaptic connections in the cortex continue to proliferate for about two years, when they peak. During this period one of the most crucial things to survival and healthy development is touch. Touch deprivation in infant monkeys is so traumatic their whole system goes haywire, with an increase of stress hormones, increased heart rate, compromised immune system and sleep disturbances. Dr Arthur Janov, author of Biology of Love, believes that very early touch is central to developing a healthy brain: "Irrespective of the neurojuices involved, it is clear that lack of love changes the chemicals in the brain and can eventually change the structure of that brain."

Even though touching is recognized as one of the most powerful non-verbal factors, it has received little attention in the scientific community. Our culture considers physical separation of children to be something positive. We raise our children for a non-tactile society and then need to compensate, using non-human objects. Sometimes we repress our need for physical contact. We are often afraid to touch each other. This can be due to social conventions or to our fear of rejection. I believe that touch is an issue that is screaming for our attention. Children are seeking validation, love and to be seen. If this need is not fulfilled they maybe act out violently against each other, against the staff or against their families at home. Unfortunately, there are a lot of children in our society who are deprived emotionally as well as physically.

One former teacher shared this experience: "During my time in school, I worked with many children in many types of crises. I have spoken to them, cried with them and sat dumbfounded with them. I have looked into their eyes and on more occasions than I can count, my human intuition told me that what they needed more than anything in that moment of difficulty, was to be touched, held and comforted. Gentle, thoughtful education and demonstration is the key to helping children and staff get the touch they need."

Massage is a Way to Create Balance in our Nervous System.

Are public schools an appropriate place to experience healthy respectful touch? Yes, I strongly believe they are! The school system today seems to be focused mainly on academic achievement; little consideration is given to holistic and spiritual development, especially in recognizing and rewarding respectful, social behaviour. As society is becoming increasingly stressful, it is important to learn at early age, empathy, and how to handle stress and stay balanced.

Children do not talk about issues when they are feeling stressed; instead they maybe get stomach problems, depressed and 'grouchy'. They do not sleep well or might have nightmares. Children are doing their best to cope with too much homework, too many after school activities, too many classmates or a high noise level in the learning environment.

Concentration and Stress do not Fit together.

It is not about expecting teachers to become professionals of massage. We know today that schools have a lot of problems with violence, bullying, stress, overcrowded classrooms etc, the list can be long. We adults may not always have the time for our children that they need. So the aim of having massage on the curriculum is to reduce stress and anxiety and create a relaxed, peaceful learning environment for children. It seems to change children from within and it brings some sort of safety in the group.

I started to run workshops for teachers on how to adapt massage according to the age of the children. It is recommended to introduce massage at an early age. To keep younger children interested and engaged I combine stories and rhymes with the massage movements. The older children are more interested in knowledge about how to prevent sport injuries and basic ergonomics. When they are spending too many hours in front of the computer, stretching, they prefer more of the sports type of massage.

Teachers have found that just 15 minutes of massage at the beginning of a lesson will help children to calm down so that they become more receptive to learning. First thing in the morning is ideal for the younger children, as this settles them and prepares them for the day ahead. Primary school teacher, Anita Thorsell, at Presseskolan, Kungsbacka, Sweden, says that her children have acquired a dependence on massage and will remind her if she forgets to let the children massage each other. She has found her pupils acting more empathetically towards each other, as well as aggressive and behavioural problems decreasing since she started massage in the classroom in 1998. "It is very important for me to create a good healthy learning environment for my children".

Swedish high school teacher, Anna-Carin Svanå, Aranäs High School, Kungsbacka, says she find her pupils studied a very demanding programme and sometimes felt stressed and found it hard to focus. In the beginning, massage was introduced once a week; as a result her students felt much more relaxed and could concentrate better. Massage before a test made her students less tense and nervous.

For Anna-Carin, it is a good thing too. It allows her the time to just sit down and breathe for a little while and valuable time to collect her thoughts before starting the lesson.

Massage is now being practised in approximately 80 schools in the UK with very positive results in the improvement of the children's behaviour. The Massage In Education Programme has been developed to fit in with the culture acceptable in schools today. It is strictly a peer massage programme; one child massaging another. They remain fully clothed and work on the back, arms, head and shoulders.

Many prefer to massage to a backdrop of gentle music. The adults in the educational establishment do not massage the children, but facilitate the massage and observe. Respect is the key to the programme. Children must have the permission of the recipient before starting any massage. This also empowers children to exercise the right to say no if they so wish. The children are also encouraged to thank the person for allowing them to do the massage and the recipient may also thank the child who gave them the massage.

Studies by the Touch Research Institute in Miami, the world's leading research institute on the effects of massage, show that cortisol levels (the hormone that is produced when under stress) is lower in children who receive massage; it eases depression, improves sleeping habits and increases the production of the hormone Oxytocin (the calming and healing hormone). Brainwaves were altered in ways that are consistent with enhanced alertness, and simple maths computations were completed in half the time with half the errors following massage therapy. From the research addendum it is clear to see that touching is more important than we ever imagined for a child's holistic development. Positive touch allows the child to feel nurtured, respected and more able to communicate appropriately with society at large and in turn makes them more empathetic and respectful towards others.

It is recommended that a presentation be made to the parents of any children taking part so that they can fully understand the programme. Parents may have the right to withdraw their children, but in reality this is rare and is usually discontinued as the parent realizes that their child is missing out and the programme is in no way threatening. We asked parents to children in age 6-7 if they had noticed any effects with their children since massage was introduced in the classroom:

• The time of obstinacy seems to be gone. Can I thank the massage?
• My boy is talking a lot of this massage, so it seems that he thinks it is a cosy time;.
• She touches us more and says that she loves us;
• My little girl likes to give me massage now and then. This helps us to have a really good time together;
• I think it is a positive way for the children to learn to touch a friend in a nice way. We all need to learn this respect;
• We think it is a very good idea to give the children homework, especially when it is concerning massage. Please go on!!!

But the most telling comments come from the children:

• I feel more friendly after I have given the massage – Kajsa 6 year;
• It was so nice that I started to cry. That's good because teardrops cleans us – Tobias 6 years;
• My sister took my best jacket to school without asking me. I was so angry and sad and did not want to go to school. That morning we had massage and after I felt sad, but not angry – Andra 7 years;
• I gave my guinea pig some massage. It was still and seemed to be happy – every body needs somebody who cares – Jessica 7 years.

Lastly, an extract from a nice story to start with for young children (I know that teachers and parents love it too, it is a very good example to use at a parents meeting):

"Once there was a land were the sunlight felt so warm.

The sun warmed up the flowers, water, animals and all the people…"

With your hands placed at the shoulders, move smoothly down the back, crossing your hands over once or twice. When you reach the base of the back, cross your hands. Repeat. The movements need to be continuous and smooth and the whole hand needs to be in contact with the back.

"Then clouds came and blocked the sun and the wind started blowing, first a little and then stronger and stronger..."

With both your hands slightly cupped, alternately tap across the top of the back.

"There were more clouds, darker and darker, and finally came the rain…"

Starting at the top of the back, with a hand on each shoulder, drag your fingers down the back again and again, getting a little harder each time. A good idea is to use children's imagination and create stories.

Children who give each other massage do not fight!


Janov A. The Biology of Love. Prometheus Books. New York. 2000.

Relevant Research

Enhanced Alertness
Field T, et al. Massage therapy reduces anxiety and enhances EEG pattern of alertness and math computations. The International Journal of Neuroscience. 86: 197-205. 1996. Massage subjects showed decreased EEG alpha and beta waves and decreased delta activity consistent with enhanced alertness. Also maths problems were completed in approximately half the time with approximately 50% less errors after massage.

Aggressive Adolescents
Diego M, et al. Aggressive adolescents benefit from massage therapy. Adolescence. 37: 597-607. 2002. Following a month of 2 chair massages per week the adolescents became less aggressive.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Hernandez-Reif M, et al. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: benefits from Tai Chi. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 5: 120-123. 2001. Adolescents with ADHD rated themselves as happier and were observed to fidget less after massage sessions. Also, teachers rated children receiving
massage as less hyperactive and as spending more time on task.

These articles are available from the Touch Research Institute in Miami.

Further Information

The Guild of Infant and Child Massage in UK, the UK's professional body for the safe, professional practice of positive touch with infants and children, fully supports the Massage In Education Programme (MIEP). The Guild ensures that all of its members are suitably qualified and have been checked by the Criminal Records Bureau.

The philosophy of the practice of massage with children takes into consideration that the child has the same rights as an adult even though they are represented by the adult who is responsible for seeing that they are treated in a caring, confidential, respectful and safe manner at all times. For more information about MIEP contact the Guild on Tel: 01889 564555.


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About Solveig Berggren

Solveig Berggren has practised Swedish sports massage since 1991. In 1996 she developed a special program for massage in schools in the south of Sweden, the goal being to reduce stress, increase tolerance and create a relaxed, friendly atmosphere in the classroom. She is also the Vice Chair for The Guild of Infant and Child Massage in the UK. She can be contacted via


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