Education Beyond Borders

Teachers Pet: 3 Benefits of Using Animals in the Classroom

If you have an affectionate animal at home, then you already know the brightness pets bring to life. If you've yet to experience the joys of animal care, you and your students will be delighted! In a classroom setting, pets have profound effects. Here are three merits of including them in your lesson plans. 

Improved Literacy

When a child reads aloud to a therapy dog, it boosts their literacy by leaps and bounds. Dog-reading programs are especially helpful for children with dyslexia. Psychologists who work with such kids find that reading before peers worsens learning disorders. Errors seem magnified when made before a critical audience. For a learning disabled child, feeling shame leads to poor self-esteem. 

Conversely, therapy dogs build confidence in struggling readers. Dogs are inherently non-judgmental. When canines are trained to listen attentively, students feel accepted. Then, in a relaxed state, reading is less frightening, making learning easier and paving the way to fluency. 

Landmark Study 

In 1983, University of Pennsylvania researchers measured the physiologic effects of reading to a dog. The study participants were 38 students, ages 9 through 15. Each pupil was asked to read in three different settings -- silently to themselves, an adult, and a gentle pup. 

The scientists found that a canine audience was calming, evidenced by decreases in the children's heart rates and blood pressures. Subsequently, in 1999, the first official dog-reading program was developed in the United States. Now, dog-reading programs are emerging across the globe, known by charming names, such as Reading With Rover, Story Dogs, and Tail Wagging Tutor Program. 

Program Format 
Therapy dogs are chosen for their sweet temperaments and predictable behaviors. Then, the pups undergo specialized training in a school setting. Once completed, each pooch is paired with a student who needs reading help, accompanied by a dog handler. 

At a typical reading session, each child and dog spend a half-hour together. First, they get acquainted through play. Then, the student sits before the pooch and reads to them, with no other pupils nearby. 

If the child hesitates or stumbles over words, the dog handler helps with pronunciation and definitions. Corrections are given tactfully. For example, the handler might say, "Poochie doesn't recognize that word." Then, the adult sounds it out and explains the word's meaning. The child doesn't feel embarrassed since the dog has the difficulty. Clever, right? 

After the reading assignment, the dog and child play again. At subsequent sessions, the same student and dog partner together, forming a trusting bond. 

Success Stories 

A 2016 article in Bark magazine describes the outcome of Sit Stay Read, a Chicago literacy program for second and third graders. As a result of dog-reading, their fluency soared, jumping from nine words per minute to 24! 

Just imagine the proud faces of your latent readers, no longer wrestling with words! See the Bark article for more program success stories. 

Better Social Skills

A classroom pet prompts cheerful discussions. When kids jointly care for the animal, it fosters cooperation. Academic environments can be competitive. However, animals confer a warm atmosphere, filled with smiles and laughter. 

Shy students become communicative. You may even overhear them talking to their pet, revealing private thoughts and feelings. This can give you insight into your students' personalities. 

Animal care makes kids more observant. Students become attuned to pet comfort and health. When handling a pet, children learn what treatment is best. They'll also let you know if something's amiss with their treasured pal. 

Such awareness transfers to human relationships, with kids seeing how their actions affect others. By noting verbal responses and body language, students learn how to behave appropriately. 

Have you encountered bullying in your class or elsewhere in school? Studies show that pet interaction halts teasing and terrorizing among kids. Caring for a pet heightens emotional sensitivity and compassion. Consequently, mocking gives way to empathy and understanding. 

Through animal care, students come to honor their pet's needs for clean quarters, healthy food, exercise, and a quiet place to sleep. If your classroom pet is a therapy dog or cat, the animal will draw affection. By valuing and appreciating their pal, students acquire greater regard for each other. They learn to take turns as caregivers. As collaborators, they become team players with fellow students. 

A classroom pet also encourages gentleness. Rowdy kids, in particular, benefit from learning to treat animals with kindness. To avoid hurting a fragile pet, this may require self-control. You can even use pet privileges to reinforce desired behaviors. 

Assigning care tasks to children shows you trust them to be responsible and follow through. When students feel capable, it affirms their self-worth. In turn, children who like themselves are more congenial with their peers. 

Kids who contribute to pet health enjoy the thrill of accomplishment. Seeing the fruits of their efforts heightens self-esteem. Even young children can help with simple duties, such as filling bowls with kibble or sprinkling fish food. 

 Enriched Learning

 Spiced-Up Subjects 
Including animal facts in your lesson plans makes them more intriguing. For instance, during a math lesson, discuss the average weight of your pet, converting ounces to grams or pounds to kilograms. 

During science class, your kids will perk up, learning what their pet needs to stay healthy. You can also spotlight the animal when teaching about ecosystems, natural habitats, and genetics. 

When discussing geography, talk about the native country of your classroom pet. While teaching vocabulary, use words describing how the animal looks, feels, smells, sounds, and behaves. For greater class involvement, make the vocabulary list a joint effort, combining your words and those of your students. 

From these suggestions, you can see that a classroom pet offers countless ways to enliven subjects, spurring enthusiastic learning. Are you getting excited, too? 

Fascinating Projects 
Give reading assignments that feature your pet's species. Or, for book reports, let your students choose animal-themed works. For an exercise in public speaking, ask your kids to give oral presentations on animal-related topics. 

For a creative writing project, ask your kids to pen short stories or poems starring the classroom pet. You can also have students log their daily observations of changing animal characteristics. 

Perhaps your scholars can host a presentation to other classes in your grade, demonstrating various aspects of animal care. For field trips, visit an aquarium, wildlife sanctuary, animal shelter, or zoo. 

Greater Participation 
In 2017, at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in Leicestershire, England, researchers documented their findings on how pets impact learning. One observation was that classroom animals improve the ability to focus and follow instructions. 

Kids become more inquisitive, asking their teacher pertinent questions that prompt lively class discussions. Since kids are eager to see their pet daily, absenteeism drops. 

As mentioned above, pet proximity ushers calmness, facilitating learning in kids who are anxious, autistic, or easily agitated. For example, the sound of water circulating in a fish tank reduces tension. In fact, this is one reason why doctors keep fish tanks in their waiting rooms. Petting a dog or cat eases distress. Feeling more serene, kids are in a better mental state to pay attention and process information. 

Plus, animal care gives kids a vital break from electronic devices and technology. They get to connect with nature through sensory stimulation -- seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching their pet. Through efforts to keep their animal healthy, kids utilize memory and problem-solving abilities. 

Budding Leaders 
In 2015, Canadian and US teachers were canvassed by the American Humane Association and the non-profit organization Pet Care Trust, which awards grants to educators for obtaining classroom pets. 

Through phone interviews and online surveys, 1,172 teachers responded to questions on the academic and emotional benefits of animal care for students. Along with improving respect and empathy, their kids developed leadership abilities, including taking more initiative. 

At Your School

Now that you know the pros of having classroom animals, the next step is launching a pet care program in your school. Here are several phases of implementation to consider. 

See your school administrator
Prepare to meet by deciding on the best type of animal for your class, based on student age, allergy considerations, and the amount of time and attention you want to invest in animal care. The safest pet options include therapy dogs and cats, gerbils, guinea pigs, turtles, rabbits, and fish. 

At your meeting, present the merits of having in-class pets. To substantiate the benefits, you might print up a few of the following articles: 

Obtain expert help. 
To start a dog-reading program at your school, visit the websites of therapy dog organizations. Some groups have hotlines where knowledgeable staff answer questions on how to initiate programs. 

Many of these organizations offer preparatory toolkits. Typically, the guides have introductory information and forms for administrators, teachers, and parents of students. Especially thrilling is that some associations provide schools with trained dog teams, certified handlers, and grants, funded by a corporate sponsorship. Following are names and websites of organizations that can assist you. 

Another option is contacting schools where animal programs are well established, such as those mentioned in the Bark post, cited above. 

Meet with school staff

Draw up an agenda of points to discuss, bringing copies with you. On your checklist, include the following topics: 

A. Discuss safety protocols. 

Everyone on staff must know how to minimize animal handling risks

B. Formulate procedures and policies for animal care. 

Specify program logistics, including care tasks on school days, weekends, and holidays. Other than yourself, designate responsible adults to oversee activities, along with contact information. Organizations such as Pet Partners can give you sample procedures and policies for adapting to your purposes. 

C. Register your school. 

This applies to a dog therapy program. Choose a dog therapy organization to sponsor your school. Registration is legally mandatory, involving compliance with the organization's requirements and standards and paying a modest fee. 

D. Organize animal teams. 

Again, for a dog therapy program, your registering organization should be able to direct you to community volunteers and partners in your area, certified by the agency. 

Happy Class

As you know, teaching can be highly rewarding or nightmarish, depending on your students' behaviors and willingness to learn. Including a classroom pet in your curriculum tips the scale in your favor. 

The animal will facilitate your students' ability to learn and get along. A dog-reading program will markedly improve reading fluency and comprehension. Plus, you can base lessons in many subjects around your classroom pet, keeping school fun and exciting. 

With a classroom pet, everyone will love coming to school, including you!


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