Nicola Kelly explores the therapeutic benefits of engagement with animals in specialist school settings.

Specialist schools by their very nature support children with often very complex challenges and needs. As well as social, emotional and mental health difficulties, pupils in specialist settings may have real challenges with attention, with forming relationships and trust.

They may struggle to communicate and to form bonds with either their peers or with the adults around them. They might have limited life experiences, or unsettled and chaotic home lives. They may be looked after. They may be aggressive or experience behaviour which is challenging for them and those around them.

Having animals in schools to support children with this level of complexity is not a fad, it’s not tokenistic and it’s not just a ‘nice’ thing to do. Animals in schools – and I’m not just talking about dogs – have a multi-faceted role to play not just therapeutically, but also educationally, socially and emotionally – in fact, they can play a supporting role in all those areas which children in special schools struggle with. They’re a non-judgemental friend in what can be a really challenging environment for our children.

The first thing to recognise is that it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ scenario when introducing animals to a specialist school. Therapy dogs, for example. are wonderful and can be really valuable, but they’re not for everyone.

For some young people the ‘fluffier’ animals might not fit the image they are trying to portray or how they see themselves. So they’re happier to engage with the ‘tougher’ appearing animals such as reptiles.

One of our schools is supported by a range of adopted helpers from the animal kingdom across reptiles, mammals and arachnids. In some cases they play similar roles, and in other cases their role in supporting the children is very different. Their ‘menagerie’ includes snakes and lizards such as chameleons and bearded dragons, tarantulas and fish as well as more ‘traditional’ animals including guinea pigs and rabbits.

For some of the students we have found they didn’t want the fluffy animals, they felt the reptiles were more ‘for them’ and acceptable within their social peer group. Just because they are not fluffy doesn’t mean that reptiles can’t fulfil many of the same sensory needs as a rabbit or guinea pig. They will look for warmth and so are happy to be held to the chest and stroked and so that two-way feedback loop between human and animal is present in the same way it would be with a guinea pig – just in a way that is more ‘socially acceptable’ for the child. One girl, who hadn’t been in school for two years, sat a maths exam with a python resting on her – and got a B!

We have seen children behave differently when they are in classrooms with animals. They seem more able to maintain self-control of emotions and actions. Where they may struggle to empathise with people, they empathise with the animals and don’t want to upset them. They understand more easily the impact of their actions on an animal. That in itself helps them learn about empathy for each other.

Often young people are not able to have pets at home and this is their first opportunity to be responsible for an animal. Having responsibility for animals is hugely beneficial for the young people. It is something we stress, that while the overall responsibility for the animal’s well-being clearly lies with the school, the pupils also have a responsibility to care for them too. They are often in charge of feeding and cleaning out their animals, for recognising their needs, for interacting with them. It helps young people establish routines, understand another creature’s needs and how to meet them.

Some of the animals take on more of a purely academic role,  such as the arachnids. While these aren’t used in a therapeutic sense, they can be a really good way to re-engage a reluctant learner or someone who has been out of school for a long time. They might not be interested in ‘learning’ but there’s lots of teaching and learning that can come from simply just observing the arachnids.

Sometimes the lessons learned from animals in schools aren’t just for the pupils. Lizards, snakes and spiders can be challenging for staff and offer a learning opportunity for them too. While some may be initially reluctant to work with their new ‘colleagues’, we ask them to look at it like this: ‘We’re often asking children to do things that they find frightening just by coming into school, or sitting in lessons or engaging with their peers. We need to challenge ourselves too and do the things that scare us!’

So, what do schools need to think about before embarking on animal therapy. The first is animal welfare. Consider who will look after the animals on a daily basis and holidays and what if the child loses interest? Are the staff experienced in handling animals? What about equipment, feed and living space?

It’s also important to consider what to do when a child moves on from a school placement. At our Welsh school the children are dedicated ‘owners’ of their particular animal and often become extremely attached. It is their personal responsibility to feed and care for the animal each day they are in school and a real relationship is formed, as you would expect.

When it is time for a child to move on, if appropriate, the child is offered the chance to adopt the animal (if all parties agree). We have found that it makes the transition easier to navigate for the young person. It acts as a comfort, a constant and a living positive memory.

From an educational perspective, having animals within school not only supports curriculum learning in academic subjects including science and animal care, it can also support vocational learning.

Our school in Somerset, as well as terrapins for example, also look after a healthy contingent of rescued hens, pygmy goats and ducks. The emphasis is on the therapeutic benefits, coupled with the educational benefits, that having a wide range of animals brings.

At another setting, the school also has an array of animals; from stick insects, to rats and micro-pigs, to name but a few. The school is surrounded by farms and children learn to oversee the full care of the animals there, including goats, horses, chickens and micro-pigs.

The year 11 pupils always oversee the ‘account’ they fundraise for the farm and donate their produce within their community. Giving them a sense of social responsibility and caring. They work in close groups at an allotment – often in groups that would not work within the classroom – but the allotment allows team work and creates a social relationship.

They work together to paint and repair fences, enhance the paddocks and make chicken climbing apparatus. The animals at the allotment offer the children companionship and purpose but more importantly it remains an amazing tool for enhancing social relationships and emotional resilience.

And finally, if the social, emotional, educational and mental health benefits were not all reasons enough to welcome animals into the learning environment, here’s one more – and it’s science! Stroking a pet has been proven to reduce cortisol (stress hormones) and increase oxytocin (feel good hormone) levels. Plus the fact they provide fun and joy! Who can argue with that?”

Nicola Kelly

Nicola Kelly is Keys Group’s Managing Director for Education.
E: [email protected]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here