Peer massage in schools reduces stress and possibly even bullying

17 April 2015
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As society is becoming increasingly demanding (not only for adults, but also for children), stress is no longer exclusive to adults.

These days, many kids are doing their best to cope with a lot of homework, after school activities, too many classmates and often a high noise level in the learning environment. In some cases, this even leads to burnout.

It has obviously become important for children to learn how to handle stress, not only to prepare for their lives as grown-ups, but also for their current well-being. However, since many parents struggle with this themselves, who can teach their kids to deal with the increased pace of life in a healthy way? School can probably play an important role here.

Positive touch and stress reduction

Studies have shown that the benefits of positive touch include a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol and an increase of oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone that, among many other things, is associated with feelings of trust and connection. It is also known to lower anxiety levels. These effects can be seen in all stages of life.

We have many ways to stimulate the secretion of oxytocin by physical contact. The intimate bond between family members and among friends is often confirmed in hugging, cuddling or with a kiss.
Besides our natural behaviour to touch each other, many cultures also have some form of massage as a more formal way to benefit from touch. There might just be a way to help schools in teaching kids how to handle stress.

Peer massage in schools

In 2008, Swedish researchers concluded a study 1 saying that “Daily touching by massage lasting between five and ten minutes could be an easy and inexpensive way to decrease aggression among preschool children.” Among other things, this study shows that, with massage:

  • Levels of aggression, anxiety and stress are lower.
  • Children function better in groups.
  • Psychosomatic illnesses are fewer.

Another study 2 shows that aggressive adolescents also benefit from massage therapy in becoming less aggressive.

Literature is clear about the fact that a lot of research still has to be done, but in the meantime, in countries including New-Zealand, the USA and the UK, many schools are successfully implementing peer massage in class to help children deal with stress.

Massage in the classroom

For instance, Cale Brandley, a third grade teacher, talks about the many benefits:

“I think peer massage in the classroom has value as a tool for the students to relate to one another through the sense of touch and to create a sense of belonging or a sense of inclusion. I value it as an exercise in saying “No” and practising self-discrimination. It is a fine motor/tactile activity as well as teaching the communication skill of asking for what you want and not simply stating what you don’t like. In that way, it is like NVC (Nonviolent Communication).

I can use it as a diagnostic tool to spot social conflicts and resolutions. One example of this is a girl who had been pinching a boy earlier in the day and then was paired with him for a hand massage. He asked her, “Can’t you do it harder than that?” with some humour, indicating that the tension from the previous pinching was resolved.

Although I cannot conclusively connect this to peer massage, I did notice the class coming together socially, with more inclusion. Two boys and one girl stand out the most. The boys are more accepted by the other boys in the class. The girl has been emotionally volatile all school year. We have been butting heads quite a bit. Since the peer massage she is more emotionally stable, calmer and more focused. She shows more gross motor coordination and she is taking direction from me better.”

Anti-bullying programme

The Danish division of Save the Children, an international, independent organisation fighting for children’s rights, has developed an anti-bullying programme for schools called “Free of bullying”. This programme has been implemented by almost one in three preschools and a quarter of primary schools or after-schools in Denmark and has been rolled out across all of Greenland’s 90 preschools and 84 schools.

The “Free of bullying” programme revolves around four core values: tolerance, respect, care and courage. These values develop the children’s social skills and enable them to develop positive relationships in childhood as well as later in life. Peer massage is also included in the programme.

Follow-up to this programme is done rigorously. One of the many positive quotes on the peer massages in the 8th report is that of a Year 3 teacher at one of the new schools adopting the programme: “I had two students in my class who called each other ‘enemies’. They now get along much better and I firmly believe that this has something to do with the massage they had just given to each other.”


Although more research needs to be done, a vast amount of practical evidence suggests that future generations might be taught some soft skills at school –by the means of massage for instance- to be able to handle the complexity of modern life.


1von Knorring AL, Söderberg A, Austin L, Arinell H, Uvnäs-Moberg, K. Massage decreases aggression in preschool children: a long-term study. Acta Paediatr. 2008;97(9):1265-1269.

2Diego M, et al. Aggressive adolescents benefit from massage therapy. Adolescence. 37: 597-607. 2002.

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Categories:   Health
Birte Witteveen

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