More than 1/6th of young people are identified as having Special Education Needs (SEN). One in eight children assessed in 2017 were identified with at least one mental disorder.
Educators continue to research new ways of assisting these children and one method that’s piqued the interest of many schools walks on four legs and can be found in the home of 49% of adults in the UK.
Pet therapy, or Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has been used in schools across the world for a number of reasons. Four-legged friends like cats and dogs or even horses and lizards are said to have a significant effect on the social, physical, emotional and psychological experiences of children with challenging behaviour issues and SEN children.
What is a Therapy Animal?
Therapy animals can come in many shapes and sizes. The most common are therapy dogs or cats and they can be applied in a number of different ways across several industries.
Yeovil District Hospital have their own therapy horse to visit their dementia patients and an increasingly common sight in British schools is the learning support dog – a specially trained therapy pup who listens to children read.
What is Animal Assisted Therapy?
Animal Assisted Therapy is delivered by a professional such as a teacher or psychologist and is a goal-directed intervention. Outcomes are documented, measured and evaluated. AAT accreditation is also necessary to ensure that therapy is undertaken properly. Dog therapy practitioner from PAWS AAT Sarah Gordon believes that the comforting nature of animals enables a trained professional to guide sessions so that opportunities are created for goals to be achieved relating to the child’s social or emotional wellbeing.
Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) like animal workshops provide therapeutic and educational opportunities for children. These don’t need to be undertaken by accredited professionals and are not intended to be observed but are used more for enrichment. Unlike AAT, AAA is not goal-directed so may help children engage with their learning in a more interactive manner but may not have long-term benefits on their social and emotional wellbeing.
Pet therapy for behavioural issues
Children with mental disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can often struggle socially and emotionally in ways which disrupt their learning and the learning of the children around them. Therapy animals have been shown to have a positive effect on children with behavioural issues in a number of cases.
Children with ODD struggle to follow instructions and interact with adults. This can often make for a very unpleasant classroom environment if not addressed properly. The way puppy therapy can help is through nurturing social bonds between the child and the animal.
Dogs can allow children to interact socially without having to interact directly with an adult. Children also learn responsibility and empathy when interacting with animals as they begin to understand their needs and the care expected of them.
Studies collected by Brelsford et al. have also shown that regular interaction with therapy animals can improve self-confidence and self-control even after therapy sessions are over.
Having animals in school can encourage social bonds between peers when children are allowed to choose a classmate to accompany them during a session. The chosen child will appreciate the opportunity and the child undergoing therapy will be able to extend their social understanding in an environment they feel comfortable in.
Having to share their time with an animal helps with understanding turn taking and fosters empathy which can promote positive behaviour in the classroom and beyond.
Walking a dog can reduce blood pressure and stimulates the body, often helping children’s classroom engagement. Similar to schemes like the Daily Mile which aims to get children running 15 minutes every day, regular physical activity can help to reduce levels of stress and anxiety which greatly exacerbate the issues experienced by children with behavioural disorders.
The simple act of stroking an animal is able to reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase levels of oxytocin in children. This minor activity helps children feel more settled, enabling them to engage more in the classroom.
Getting to spend time with animals in school can be a great reward for children who have improved their behaviour to encourage a continued improvement and to give the child more responsibility for their own behaviours.
Interaction with therapy animals can improve memory and problem solving ability which can in turn improve children’s self confidence when they see their attainment improve.
More than anything, animals can help children to develop coping methods for emotional regulation. When children express negative behaviours animals such as dogs or horses will not interact with them, while positive behaviours are more likely to engage the animals.
Animal Therapy expert Cynthia Chandler is sure that pets as therapy is a trend that’s here to stay purely based on the oxytocin effect. This hormone is one of the most powerful social hormones we produce and animals have a huge effect on us no matter who we are. Introducing them to the classroom could be the missing link that will improve the social environment and get an ever-increasing number of children with behavioural issues the help they need.
Animal Assisted Therapy for SEN children
Many of the benefits already discussed can also have a positive effect on children with SEN but have specific benefits to certain disorders including autism, chromosome deletion, Down’s syndrome and sensory issues.
Positive social, psychological and physical improvements that come from interacting with animals can really help SEN children engage with their learning and develop an understanding of how to interact with the world.
The doctor credited with undertaking the first dog therapy session, Brian Levison, observed that a dog’s presence helped to strengthen a child with autism’s connection with their environment. Research also shows that children with autism can benefit from developing close bonds with animals as this encourages social interaction but can act as an intermediate to help those who are less inclined to socialise with adults or peers.
Reading dogs have also been known to have a positive effect on children who are usually nonverbal, encouraging them to communicate in a calm environment free of judgement or social expectation. Relationships that can take long periods of time to build between adults and nonverbal children can be forged with animals much quicker, enabling the teacher to better understand their learning abilities and how to structure their work.
Dr Helen Lewis, lecturer at University of Wales, Trinity St David (who tweets at @HEL71_ believes that introducing an animal to a group can also help SEN children learn and demonstrate empathy, kindness and respect, as well as encourage turn taking and sharing.
The tactile stimulation from dog or cat therapy can calm children, which can be helpful for autistic children experiencing a meltdown or sensory overload to process their environment or better self-regulate.
The use of reptiles, more common in AAA, can also provide tactile stimulation with different textures than can be provided by a dog or cat.
The brushing of fur can help to improve fine motor skills in children with physical disabilities and is a creative, novel solution to this problem that many children experience.
The presence of therapy cats or dogs has also been proven to reduce blood pressure which can improve heart health. This can be beneficial to children with issues such as Patent Ductus Arteriotus (PDA) where an opening has formed between the two major blood vessels of the heart at birth.
Children with SEN benefit from the improvement in self-esteem and responsibility that come from interacting with therapy animals and these can help them engage with their learning on a deeper level.
Parents of SEN children have also noted the improvements that can be made for children with a phobia of dogs which can affect their daily life. By introducing the animal in a controlled environment where the child can see that they will be safe and that their peers are interacting positively, they can then be encouraged to interact with the pet at their own pace without the pressure and stress of unknown circumstances.
While the research for the solid scientific benefit of Animal Assisted Therapy remains inconclusive due to differing circumstances and the lack of a universal study framework, the natural positive effects of animals on humans can’t be denied and will certainly continue to bring value to children who need it the most.
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