Have you ever invited a class guest, perhaps a speaker from an interesting field outside of education? Was the class guest inspiring? Did all the kids get involved? And how would it go down if the worst reader in your class was to read to this class guest for half an hour…would the guest stay focused on the student and pay close attention to the struggling reader? Would the guest return every day for the rest of the year to spend half an hour listening to the struggling reader, and remain patient and happy?
Well, in many classrooms across the world, ranging from special education through mainstream and into gifted education, classrooms are being opened to animal guests. I am talking about dogs and cats being allowed into the classroom at regular intervals, with amazing results relating to student outcomes. Here are a few examples I came across:
- In some special education schools in America, the students are taught valuable life skills like perserverance, empathy, listening to instructions and sharing, by spending time with ‘facility dogs’. Students work with a specific dog each day, brushing, walking and playing with the dog. A special bond usually forms quickly between the dog and the child, and very positive results have been recorded as students that refuse the interact with other students, quickly start talking and playing with the dogs. Teachers noted that the dogs were always interested in the students, and stayed focused on the students with a non-judgemental and friendly manner. Students responded positive to this, as the following excerpt demonstrates: “The dog has a very calming effect,” says Jeanine Konoleski of Canine Companions for Independence. “It’s just a different bond between a human and an animal that’s amazing to see.” The organization, which breeds, raises, and trains dogs to work as service dogs for the disabled, sends so-called facility dogs to classrooms across the country, where teachers are trained to use their dog in the classroom, practicing everything from math using dog food measurements to writing with the dog as a subject. (http://www.education.com/magazine/article/Unconventional_Teaching_Tools/)
- The link between animals and autistic students has fascinated many educators over the years. Many parents and counsellors of autistic students have found enormous value in using a trained dog with an autistic child. The dogs are trained to nuzzle the face of the child as soon as the child starts crying, rocking to and fro, or displays any behaviour that the dog may recognize as the onset of an emotional episode. The dog keeps distracting the child in this manner until the child starts responding to the attention by calming down and looking at the dog. The dog stays focused on the child, and in many instances, children that usually refuse to look anybody in the eye, will take hold of the dog’s head and look the dog in the eye, and start talking to the dog in comprehensive sentences. In many instances, the child is then also able to talk to the adult in comprehensive sentences and even to respond to questions. The parents also take these dogs shopping with them, if the children need to go along. What would usually be a very long and tiring trip for the parent as the parent previously had to deal with the autistic student’s outbursts, now becomes a shared experience as the children stay calm and focused during the shopping trip, regularly touching and talking to the dog. For more information on this, google ‘dogs for autism’ or go to http://www.righteouspups.org.au/Services/AutismAssistanceDogs/tabid/162/Default.aspx, and for some amazing stories of autistic children forming special bonds with dogs, read: http://www.emporiagazette.com/news/2009/jan/31/dog_magic_leash_boy_autism/, http://www.righteouspups.org.au/Services/AutismAssistanceDogs/LeoandHalo/tabid/179/Default.aspx, http://www.righteouspups.org.au/Services/AutismAssistanceDogs/ZachandJaxon/tabid/180/Default.aspx and http://www.righteouspups.org.au/Services/AutismAssistanceDogs/AbigailandButtons/tabid/176/Default.aspx, or watch some of these videos: http://autismservicedogsofamerica.com/videos.cfm
- In some schools in America, dogs are being used to encourage struggling readers to practice their reading. The students read to the dogs every day, and it does not matter how many mistakes they make, the dog remains focused on the child and attentive. This encourages the children to persist with their reading, seeing great improvements in short amounts of time. Notably is the program R.E.A.D.: An acronym for Reading Education Assistance Dogs, one of the first nationally recognized organizations to incorporate the use of animal assistants with students for reading programs.
- Students that have speech impairments, also benefit from practicing instructions with the dogs. ‘Sit’, ’stay’ and ’shake paw’ is especially helpful for students that struggle with the ’s’ sound. For more information and results of experiments, please refer to http://www.springerlink.com/content/m1t5306×13888134/fulltext.pdf
- Students that have been shy to talk in front of others, have been able to answer questions about a dog without hesitation. This breaks the barrier for these students, and soon the students are also able to answer questions or talk about other topics or issues.
- Empirical research supports the contention that the presence of a calm, attentive dog tends to reduce the stress responses. Physiological measures such as a reduction in heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and other observable signs of anxiety reveal that interacting with a dog can moderate stress (Katcher, Friedmann, Beck, & Lynch, 1983).
- Gentle Carousel Therapy Horses are tiny, show quality miniature horses that are therapy animals. At only 27-29 inches tall, these horses work with children and adults inside hospitals, hospice programs, assisted living programs, group homes, programs for Alzheimer patients, schools for children with disabilities and with those unable to leave home. They also work with at risk and abused children. Gentle Carousel also has the “Reading Is Magic” program, which focuses on struggling or at risk students in preschools and elementary schools, and it was found that students respond very well and form an instant bond with the horses. Students that are not willing to read in front of other people, willing read to the horse, or re-tell a story to the horse. This has a huge impact on learning to read fluently, as well as reading for understanding so as to be able to tell the story in your own words.(http://www.bringlight.com/organizations/show/274)
- A chance encounter with a horse called Betsy, helped the parents of an autistic student to unlock some of the barriers between the child and the world. The boy was accepted by the horse at age two, and the bond between the child and the horse has been strong ever since. The boy is able to talk comprehensively, answer and ask questions, and stay focused on task while on the horse, and for extended periods after getting off the horse. “Whenever he was on a horse he wouldn’t tantrum,” said Isaacson. “When I put him on Betsy that would be the only time his tantrums would stop, any other situation and he could turn at any point. We wanted to keep him on a horse as long as possible.” For more information, photos and the whole story, please refer to http://abcnews.go.com/Health/AutismNews/story?id=7354280&page=1. Another story relating to horses and autism, is told in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHzEfMdRE30
There has been positive results for students in interactions with animals in the learning environment. There are many people that believe that bringing animals into schools, may be equal to opening a can of worms, with asthma, safety of students, animal welfare and so forth, cited as reasons for discouraging the use of animals in classrooms. However, somewhere in the back of my mind, the old saying about throwing out the baby with the bathwater, still rings true…I would like to pose a question: Would a compromise between animals as respected and valued classroom ’visitors’, and students that truly benefit from these visitations with animals, see a school enviroment where students feel safer, calmer and more willing and able to take risks with their own learning?