From Bullying to Belonging: How peer massage relieves social stress
By THEA BLAIR
We forget that touch is not only basic to our species but the key to it.” -Dr. Saul Schanberg
“The warmth of human touch and security of body contact, are without question, the most effective way to reduce violence in our culture. Fragmentation and isolation of human relationships, the denial of true intimacy and the pleasure it implies, builds into the brain a predisposition for anger, rage and violence. The opposite is also true. It is really that simple.” -James W. Prescott
Violence, including bullying and social exclusion have become a grave concern in classrooms all across the nation. Peer Massage, which began in Sweden 20 years ago, has proven empirically to reduce violence and increase social inclusion. This is because massage reduces stress, it changes the body’s chemistry and this chemistry also promotes bonding. In fact, this chemistry was first discovered when a mother was holding and responding to her newborn baby. Research has proven that touch is a basic human need and when a person is touch-deprived they can become violent.
We humans are essentially social beings. We yearn to belong, to be accepted; our brains are hard-wired to seek out connection and collaboration with other sentient beings for our very survival. In fact, in some cases, exclusion from one’s group will result in death. That’s why solitary confinement is the greatest punishment, short of death. Now, there are many ways to achieve connection, but touch, being our first sense to develop, is our primary language of acceptance and belonging, safety and security. Kind words and gestures are very effective in making someone feel welcome, but giving someone’s hand a squeeze or putting your arm around their shoulder confers a kinship and the relief of belonging like nothing else can.
These days the popular term for belonging is social inclusion. It is a term often used in reference to it’s opposite, social exclusion, or bullying. Bully behavior can be characterized as violence aimed at intimidation or social exclusion and can be perpetrated by an individual or a group. It can be blatant, such as physical or verbal battery, or name calling. Or it can be a subtle form of exclusion conveyed by inference, or gesture, or facial expression. Bullying takes the impulse to belong and feel secure within a group to such an extreme as to exclude others, as if, by excluding them, one’s own status will be secured. The roots of bullying behavior are deeply embedded in feelings of insecurity and lack of safety, which can be the result of a similar violence or simply unchecked social stress.
Social stress is a natural occurrence when individuals gather into groups. Imagine you are the new kid at school. There is a certain anxiety that travels in your blood and makes you hyper-sensitive to signs of acceptance (inclusion) or rejection (exclusion). You may find that you can’t think as clearly as you normally do or that you say something and it sounds silly as soon as it leaves your mouth. You may notice that your heart is beating faster, your breathing is short, your tummy is tight. You might even be sweating. This is social stress, and it can be triggered by seemingly small and insignificant events: a stern look from a parent or teacher, another student avoiding your gaze, picking teams at recess, reading aloud in class, walking in late to class, forgetting your lunch, wearing new shoes and discovering that they don’t resemble anyone else’s, etc…
Social stress is only one kind of stress. Yet, I think the stress of feeling excluded is fundamental to our very existence as human beings. Our need to be valued and feel secure in our standing within a group, whether it be our family or our class at school supersedes all other needs. And these days, when the world is full of life-threatening circumstances and stress runs rampant, it is more important than ever to know that someone has “got our back”; that we have “social security” and we know “where we stand”. Social exclusion is the default mode of stress. Therefore, it behooves us as teachers and parents to make conscious, pro-active efforts to be socially inclusive.
To understand why this is so we must see what happens in our bodies when we feel our survival is threatened. When a threat is perceived – and it can be real or imagined, emotional or physical – the adrenal gland secretes a hormone called cortisol which signals the brain to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This cortisol response causes a dilation of the pupils and a rapid breathing. Most significantly, the blood flow is cut off to the digestive functions and redirected to our limbs so we can be ready to fight or run. We perceive this as a “twist in our gut”, a “tightness in our belly”, or even nausea. Our blood is also withdrawn from the forebrain which is the area which makes reasoning and creative thinking possible. We can experience this as a “brain freeze” or “shock and awe”. Because, in times of stress, we don’t have access to our rational thinking we may say or do things that we regret later; we may say or do things which do more, in the long run, to thwart our survival than to save us. Sometimes we are aware of our anti-social behavior even when it is happening, but we just as often don’t remember a thing we said or did!
The cortisol response is a natural way to deal with imminent danger: identify the danger and either fight it, run away from it, or freeze and hope it passes us by. Thus, we are prompted to seek out and target someone, or something, as the enemy and, because the rational part of our brain is shut down, we may choose to target someone as an enemy when they actually pose no threat to us. Chronic stress leads to a mental framework which is constantly seeking enemies. Furthermore, this “enemy consciousness” coupled with a desire to belong to a group generates exclusionary groups, or cliques. One of the hallmarks of a clique is that the members feel more secure when they have others to exclude. Once again, we see the convoluted and tragic rationale of exclusion as a way to enhance survival, manifesting in such things as bullying and political parties, and even war.
Now, nature is wise. Sometimes we really need this response to get us out of immediate danger. At all other times it is most advantageous for our survival to collaborate, and to think rationally and creatively. The chemical associated with relaxation and collaboration is called oxytocin. Oxytocin has been called the bonding hormone, the friendship hormone, the love hormone. It is secreted by the pituitary gland and when it floods the blood stream it is like a sigh: the threat is gone, relaxation occurs, normal digestive and immune function resume; everyone is seen as a potential friend. The oxytocin response could be summed up in the word magnanimity: loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity.
What stimulates the secretion of oxytocin? Connection : any kind gesture, any attempt to understand another, any invitation to play. Any activity which relies on a shared purpose, will bring on the oxytocin, but by far the most significant contributor to the secretion of this “peace hormone” is our primary language of mutuality: nurturing touch. Have you ever been upset or “shook up” and then someone gave you a reassuring hug and you felt instant relief, your cares simply dissolved? Kerstin Uväs-Moberg, M.D., Ph. D, is a recognized authority on oxytocin. When she was asked, “Are there ways that people can increase their oxytocin levels in daily life?”, touch was at the top of her list. She said, “Although some are thinking about developing oxytocin drugs, I believe the absolute best thing to do is to activate your own oxytocin. Your body knows how to handle that oxytocin. Touch is very important. Getting massage is helpful. Interactive touch with human beings is best.”
Touch is our first sense to develop and it is our primary language of safety and security. We know that infants who do not receive adequate touch fail to thrive and sometimes die. Premature babies that receive massage gain weight nearly 50% faster than their counterparts. Just under one hundred years ago, Rudolf Steiner postulated 12 senses, with touch being the first and over-arching sense, culminating in the “sense of the individuality of another”. One could think of touch as the physical basis of what we now call empathy. Touch is a unique sense in that it is the physical manifestation of mutuality – when one is touched by another person, one simultaneously feels themselves (on the inside) and the other (on the outside).
Oxytocin and cortisol function opposite each other: when one is high the other is low. I don’t know what ratio of oxytocin to cortisol constitutes a healthy balance, but I have personally found it beneficial to have a surplus of oxytocin to offset the many stresses of modern life. I do everything I can to keep oxytocin levels high in myself and in the children in my care. I practice language and communication styles that are connecting. I plan activities that are inclusive and games that are non-competitive. I make sure the children get the opportunity to move, both energetically and quietly, and I bring to the classroom an activity that originated in Sweden 20 years ago: peer massage.
Peer massage is done between students and is facilitated and supervised by the teacher with a story or song. It is done with clothes on, and only on head shoulders, back, arms, and hands. Most importantly, peer massage is always done with consent. By always asking permission the students learn respectful, appropriate boundaries. Because nurturing touch stimulates the secretion of oxytocin, peer massage promotes social inclusion! Other benefits of peer massage are calm, focus, increased creativity and reasoning, better digestion, and a stronger immune system.
Peer massage does not rule out the need for other forms of support for social inclusion – it augments those programs. Despite it’s universal effectiveness at reducing stress and promoting social inclusion, peer massage, has struggled to gain widespread acceptance and recognition. Although most people intuit that touch is a fundamental human need, many people are afraid to touch. In fact, our American culture is considered tacto-phobic – afriad of touch! I want to change that by defining healthy touch and making it safe to touch again. This is how I define healthy touch: Healthy touch is always with consent, well-intended, and appropriate.
A typical peer massage routine begins with the students pairing up with the giver asking the receiver if they would like a massage. If the answer is “no”, a new partner is found. In the case of an odd number, the students can form a threesome. The teacher never partners with a student, because this is all about the students bonding with one another as equals. Once consent is obtained the routine can begin. (Those who opt out can sit quietly and take the time to relax.) The teacher leads the routine, while telling a story or singing a song, while demonstrating on another adult or gesturing in the air. The students are required to follow the routine exactly – hand placement is important. Sometimes the teacher facilitates the creation of a new routine using the student’s ideas.
The receiver is in charge of the massage. The children show care and respect for one another by following their wishes. Students are encouraged to “talk only to your partner and only about the massage” so that the receiver is very comfortable and enjoying the experience. On a few occasions I have met students who were tactile defensive. Everyone in the class knows who they are and they look at me as if to ask, “What will you do with John?” What I do is ask John, “If you knew you could say exactly how it is done; if you knew you could stop the activity at any time, would you try it?” They always try it and they always come out smiling!
In order to test its effectiveness, peer massage can be done in conjunction with a socio-gram. This is a questionnaire that each child fills out in which they indicate who they play with often, sometimes, seldom, or never. It gives the teacher a picture of the level of social integration of their class. After the peer massage has been done for some time the class can be reassessed. Even without this formality, though, the effects are visible. Jean Barlow, Of Child2child has many stories of children coming to her after peer massage and saying, “I feel safe now”, or “I have lots of friends now!”. She told me of another story about two boys who once fought daily and after peer massage just went about their play. One of them remarked to her cheerfully, “Oh, we don’t fight anymore, we are massage partners!”.
Susan Howard, head of school, Hallwood Park Primary school, Cheshire, England wrote to me, “We have been practicing peer massage for approximately 5 years. We do it with all of our pupils (3 -11 years old) to a lesser or greater degree. Our school is in an area of deprivation with a ‘benefits’ culture (and very little other culture unless we provide it in school and school visits), parents have few aspirations, are frequently aggressive and there are elements of alcohol and drugs abuse. We developed a very tight behaviour management policy many years ago and over the years we have looked for initiatives which would benefit our pupils and one of these was peer massage. Staff were very skeptical initially – it is very strange to think that pupils will be ‘massaging’ each other!! However, once they were trained and we introduced it into school we realized the benefits. It is very good for social cohesion, forming and enhancing relationships; it is a pleasant experience, it can be relaxing or fun as well as being educational; it has a calming effect in young lives that are often chaotic. These are just some of the reasons why we continue peer massage.”
As a regular substitute teacher I have found that the students love it. They become calm, focused, and friendly which makes my job easy and fun. Furthermore, I get to witness social barriers dissolving when each child shares healthy touch with every other child in the class. Remember, we don’t want to touch someone we don’t like, and if a child (or an adult for that matter) does not receive adequate friendly touch they may believe that they are not liked, not accepted. This feeling of not being accepted induces a stress I call “social stress” and sends the child into a “fight or flight or freeze” response which results in any manner of anti-social behavior, including bullying and social exclusion. Peer massage, using the primary language of touch, de-stresses and reconnects the children, dissolving anti-social behavior.
Thea Blair can be reached at www.theablair.com
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Massage in Schools Programme, http://www.massageinschools.com
Peaceful Touch, http://www.liddlekidz.com/peaceful-touch.html
Thea Blair, www.theablair.com
Touch Research Institute, http://www6.miami.edu/touch-research