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Primary School Therapist

With children’s mental health being at the forefront of media attention these days, I thought it would be a good idea to share some of my experience supporting primary school children with complementary therapies.

Almost ten years ago I applied for and secured a role working within a primary school in Surrey as a massage therapist, yes that’s right a massage therapist! At the time it was also part of my role to factor in 5 appointments per week for staff member so teachers, teaching assistants as well as school secretaries and even the caretaker could benefit from some chill out time after a long and demanding day. This was done in an attempt to create a better environment, primarily for children, but also for staff with the idea that if the staff were less stressed this would be passed on to the children. It also meant that the caretaker had no reason to have time off with back pain, he would just book an appointment for either a massage or a Neuroskeletal Realignment Therapy (NSRT) treatment and could be back to work that afternoon. However, despite the common sense of this when the school had a new leadership team it was decided that staff should not benefit in this way using taxpayers money.

To give you a little history as to how my role came about, this was not a result of a privileged school, this was a school where many children were being ‘permanently excluded’. As a result, any issues these children may have had were never dealt with, instead the child just carried their problems with them onto another school. This compounded the problem and would often result in a worsening of behaviour as these children were subjected to very complex life situations. It is well known that exclusion causes children to become angry, using attack as their only means of defense; often resulting in them becoming lost in a system and feeling particularly unwanted, adding to an overall lack of self-worth.

The primary school I worked at initially set up a system under direction of a university study, looking at ways to resolve problems that primary school children may have within the school setting. One of the strategies they used was to create an environment within the school that did not feel or look like school. There was a soft area for children to hide away in if they felt they needed to. The room was filled with functional toys and aides that could allow the children to explore their feelings in a safe environment. This was facilitated by a most amazing colleague who was skilled at asking the types of questions that would allow the child to gradually become aware of their own feelings without being overwhelmed. She worked skillfully with a variety of techniques to build self-worth and self-esteem that was not inherent to many of the children who became part of this process. She would also work with parents to address any issues they might have in a supportive manner. As part of this intervention these children would also see me twice a week.

At a first visit I would give them a shortened adapted reflexology treatment and they would make what we called a ‘smelly tissue’. The smell was chosen by the children from aromatherapy essential oils, these oils had cards attached that had been infused with the essential oils. The cards were cut in the shape of feet and it was with great hilarity the children would tell me that they were now going to ‘smell your feet Miss!’ in order to make their selection. Nine times out of ten the choice would entail the oils with the properties that seemed to reflect accurately the individual needs; as their treatments progressed their oil choices often changed. The language the children used to explain why they did not like a particular oil was also remarkable; referring to it as smelling like coffee when they were actually floral smells, or saying Ylang Ylang smelt like chocolate milkshake and this was why they chose it.

The children were allowed to choose two smells and put a drop of each on a tissue that they could take away with them to remember their relaxing time. Some children would take them home with pride to let their family smell them, whilst others liked to leave them in their book bag saying that every time they opened the bag they got their favorite smell. As I was only in two days a week it was not uncommon for both staff and children to say to me ‘I knew you were in today because I could smell you’.

The second appointment that week was variable depending on the age and understanding of the child; we might practice breathing techniques, visualisations or mindfulness techniques. Details of the session and what we were working on were discussed with the teacher and reinforced. I remember on one occasion one of the boys I was seeing had got into a fight with another and had built himself into a rage. The teacher was aware of the work we were doing together to cope with his anger management and she called out for him to ‘breathe’, at which point he went straight into the deep breathing technique he had been shown which managed to calm him down and defused the whole situation.

Six week interventions seemed to work the best as this was enough time to teach and reinforce the strategies that I hope will serve the children for the rest of their lives, with a half-term break at the end of the treatments this seemed to fit very well with the school calendar.

The children that came to me had a wide range of needs; sometimes the request would come from home, sometimes from the teacher. The trigger for these requests was often a change of character, for example, a very outgoing confident child who suddenly became subdued and quiet, or the absolute opposite where a quiet child became very vocal and not able to cope with normal classroom situations. Requests from home would often be as a result of a life-changing experience or a bereavement, whether that was the breakup of a relationship or a loss of a loved one. Sometimes it was just due to the fact that the parents or carers were just not able to cope for a wide variety of reasons.

As well as working one to one with children, I also worked in class groups and friendship groups with peer massage. On a very basic level this works as it is totally inclusive and does not rely on academic or sporting ability to be successful. All children showed themselves able to work with massage to make their classmate feel nice. This always seemed to have the effect of making children more empathetic, as all children want to please and want to be congratulated on what they have done, even though they may sometimes demonstrate the complete opposite in their actions.

I worked in this role for almost 10 years and to watch a child grow in self esteem and confidence was a regular occurrence that never failed to give me an enormous amount of job satisfaction. So much so that there is no doubt in my mind that there is a definite need for this type of intervention for young children to ensure a good and positive emotional health in spite of life circumstance that may often leave them feeling otherwise. Surely it is obvious that anyone in a high state of stress could not be expected to sit down quietly and take in information to learn when it feels like your world is falling apart!

It is my intention to write blogs of my experiences working in this unique environment in future but in the meantime if you would like to know more join me for my workshop Reflexology and Working with Children on 7th April 2017.

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