Animal Therapy in schools has made observable differences to children’s mental health, behaviour and wellbeing in the past. With more than 1/6th of young people identified as having Special Education Needs (SEN) and one in eight children assessed in 2017 being identified with at least one mental disorder, Animal Therapy could make a huge improvement to a child’s life.
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is delivered by a human professional, such as a teacher or therapist as a goal-directed intervention. Animal therapist Sarah Gordon believes that, in animal therapy, the comforting nature of animals is deployed so that a person is able to guide sessions towards objectives. AAT accreditation is also required to ensure the sessions are undertaken properly.
Children with behavioural issues
Children with behavioural issues, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can often struggle academically in ways that can be tackled through animal therapy.
Children with ODD struggle with following instructions and find it difficult to form relationships with adults. Conducting Animal Therapy in school can be a useful way of circumventing these issues to help develop children’s social abilities.
Interacting with a therapy animal regularly can teach children responsibility and help them understand how to care for vulnerable creatures. This improves the child’s understanding of empathy which can lead to improvements in their interactions with adults.
Regular exercise that comes with walking a therapy dog has been proven to reduce levels of stress and anxiety which can often exacerbate issues faced by children with ADHD and can lead to improved engagement with academic studies.
Animal Therapy in schools has also been shown to improve memory and problem solving ability even after the sessions have finished, helping to bolster children’s self-confidence as they see their attainment rise.
Children with SEN
Children on the Autistic spectrum have often been involved in Animal Therapy studies but children with disabilities that also affect them physically can experience great benefits from interacting with animals.
Therapy animals such as reading dogs can be beneficial for nonverbal children as they are encouraged to read to the dog, removing any anxiety around social interactions with adults.
The act of stroking a dog also naturally reduces cortisol and increases oxytocin which can be a great way of self-regulating during a meltdown or to calm children experiencing sensory overload.
Brushing an animal, stroking their fur or experiencing any other tactile stimulation from animals such as reptiles is also helpful for children with physical disabilities to develop their fine motor skills.
Children with SEN can benefit from the responsibility of caring for a therapy animal, improving their self-esteem and encouraging them to further engage with their learning.
The oxytocin effect
Scientific studies have shown that interaction with animals is a reliable way of producing oxytocin and Animal Therapy expert Cynthia Chandler believes that this is one of the most powerful social hormones humans produce.
Since Animal Therapy in schools is still fairly new, the scientific evidence is not conclusive but purely for the oxytocin effect, it’s most likely here to stay as a means of improving children’s mental health.
Should every child have an animal therapist?
The issue of nurturing children’s mental health must continue to be prioritised across the UK if we are to provide the best quality education to all children. While Animal Therapy in schools may not be the best solution for every child, the positive effect animals can have on children with behavioural disorders or Special Education Needs makes a good case for its introduction where possible.
This article was written by Damon Culbert from Wild Science, provider of Animal Workshops across the UK.