Animal-assisted activities for students with disabilities: obtaining stakeholders' approval and planning strategies for teachers

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Date: July-August 2014
From: Childhood Education(Vol. 90, Issue 4)
Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International
Document Type: Report
Length: 4,934 words
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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Animal-human interactions have been found to have positive influences on children across the world. In particular, research supports the benefits of animal-assisted activities in addressing students' social and behavioral problems within the classroom environment. The general information about animal-assisted activities provided in this article can help teachers identify key steps in effectively using such activities to teach socially important behaviors to children with learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, and autism. The author explains that the effectiveness of animals in classrooms is dependent on strong administrative, parental, and collegial support; clear and measurable goals; well-developed instructional plans; an appropriate animal choice; well-developed health and safety procedures; and systematic plans for monitoring progress in student performance.

While working in a classroom for students with disabilities, I witnessed firsthand the benefits of incorporating animals into classroom instruction.

My students had a wide range of disabilities and several of them experienced severe behavior problems. A local animal-assisted activity organization took an interest in our special education program and volunteered to bring various assistance animals to our school once a month. I prepared the students for unusual visitors and they waited, with much anticipation, for the first visit of two therapy dogs. Students who were normally expressionless and displayed less than desirable social skills became positively animated. Students began to understand better ways of expressing their needs as they took turns with each other to be with "Morgan" and "Samantha" and interact with them with respect. It was obvious that students felt comfortable and safe with the therapy dogs as they knew the dogs would not make fun of their reading and behaviors.

The use of therapy animals to help students with disabilities is not a new concept. Doctors and therapists have reported on the social and emotional benefits of animals for humans (Fine, 2010; Ormerod, Edney, Foster, & Whyham, 2005; Raupp, 2002). Animal-assisted activities can reduce behavior problems and anxiety, improve engagement with classroom tasks, and also increase positive peer interactions and appropriate social behaviors (Fine, 2010; Thompson & Gullone, 2003). Other benefits of having animals in the classroom for students with disabilities include the reduction of reading anxiety and improved reading fluency and comprehension (Bueche, 2003; Newlin, 2003). Such animal-assisted activities have been widely used in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and in Europe and Asia (Cardak, 2009; Delta Society, 2012; International Organization of Human-animal Interaction, 2012; Jalongo, Astorino, & Bomboy, 2004; Therapy Dogs International, 2012). The positive effect on children of interactions with animals has been reported throughout the world (Mallon, 1992; Ormerod et al., 2005).

Students with disabilities face a variety of challenging issues each day within their classrooms. Recent research supports the view that the use of trained and certified animals within the classroom environment can have a positive influence on these students' social and behavioral problems (Bass, Duchowny, & Llabre, 2009; Bueche, 2003; Friesen, 2010; Newlin, 2003; Siegel, 2004). When special education teachers and related professionals hear about animal-assisted activities, they often immediately see the...

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