Animals are transforming the lives of young people with mental health difficulties and special educational needs.
When a distressed and troubled schoolboy climbed onto an 8ft gate post to bunk off school, his headteacher and staff were sick with worry. Then, when he suddenly stood up on the top of the gatepost, threatening to jump off whilst crying ‘No one cares’ repeatedly, the situation seemed hopeless. Despite the headteacher’s efforts to persuade him, nothing seemed to be able to convince him to climb down.
With just one sound, Margot performed what appeared to be a miracle, and coaxed him down from the gatepost.
Margot is in fact a dog. A shorkie, a cross between a black shitzu and Yorkshire terrier, she is often booked out for ‘Wellbeing walks’ for staff needing time out to deal with the challenges of teaching.
“She simply lay down at the bottom of the post and gave one little whimper. This caught the young person’s attention which gave me a moment to say: ‘Margot cares. She’s worried about you and isn’t going to walk away until you are safe’. Within a few moments, the young person had safely climbed down to the ground and was having a big cuddle with a very clever dog and a relieved headteacher!”
Margot belongs to headteacher Sarah Gregory at Aurora Woodlands who says, “She can read my mind and often knows when I need a cuddle even before I do….. She’s been invaluable as I have got to know students at my new school as everyone wanted to meet her and get to know her – and forgot they were also getting to know me at the same time.“
Surprising as it may sound, Margot is not alone in her therapeutic capabilities and talents. Animals across the board of all shapes and sizes, from rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, and alpacas can and do make a difference.
Just by being there and needing nurture and care, animals have a transformative effect on young people.
More than just practical skills – Animal Therapy helps young people to manage their emotions. As Emily Sheppard from the on-site animal care team at Aurora Boveridge College says, “Grooming and petting our animals is very calming for the students and helps them to manage their anxiety.”
The Aurora Group, which has a network of pioneering Special Needs and Disability (SEND) schools, colleges, and residential care homes across the UK, encourages its pupils to spend time with animals to help them to develop important life skills.
Paul Lister, Deputy Head Teacher at Aurora Keyes Barn School, explains the benefits of having a farm on their doorstep: “We’re fortunate to have a wonderful local farm on our doorstep. The children often visit at certain times of the year, such as lambing season, where they get to see, hold and feed newborn lambs, as well as seeing sheep being sheared.”
The school also has connections with people working locally with animals, from teachers that run cat rescue charities to local vets who bring injured animals in, “including a squirrel that was recuperating from an injury, and which was eventually released back to the wild in the school grounds.”
The benefits of spending time with animals are becoming increasingly widely recognised by professionals across the education sector.
To any learning institution interested in developing this theme: bringing animals into a school setting requires careful planning, to protect the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved. Plus, you will need to obtain the approval of parents, staff and governors and have suitable policies, risk assessments, and insurances in place.
If your school is not in a position to care for its own animals long-term, there are plenty of alternative options available such as linking up with a local farm or animal shelter.