How children can benefit from pets in the classroom.
Pets and kids seem like a natural match. Not always, but many times they are quite fond of each other.
And there’s something to it.
Research has been supporting the idea that animals can benefit children — even in the classroom.
“Many studies have shown and confirmed that companion animal ‘pets’ have taught children to be gentler and caring to all living beings, which they retain as grownups,” said holistic veterinarian and researcher Dr. Jean Dodds, of Hemopet veterinary center in Garden Grove.
Hemopet recently posted an article on its blog titled “Pets in the Classroom: 4 Reasons Why They Help Children Study.”
The reasons, delineated by the writer, Robert Woods, include that pets help build self-esteem and empathy, that children are more likely to follow instructions around them, that pets create new learning experiences and that they alleviate anxiety and reduce stress.
“Animals offer a unique experience for children in the classroom, but also for any person,” said Katie Pfeffer, a licensed marriage and family therapist who serves the Orange County area. “It is widely known that people who have animals live longer and experience higher rates of happiness. I believe this is primarily due to the fact that we are bonding mammals as well. We are biologically driven to connect. As it gets harder and harder to bond authentically with other humans, animals provide a surrogate experience for human contact, and an authentic bonding experience.”
One 2009 study published in Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals (“Preschoolers’ adherence to instructions as a function of presence of a dog and motor skills task”) found that preschoolers were more likely to follow instructions in motor skills-type tasks that required modeling behavior when a dog was present.
In a 2010 study (“Teachers’ experiences with humane education and animals in the elementary classroom: Implications for empathy development”) published in the Journal of Moral Education, the majority of teachers surveyed believed that the use of live pets in the classroom benefitted students in the area of empathy, as well as socio emotional development.
Heidi Cockerill, a fourth-grade teacher at Acacia Elementary School in Fullerton, has had similar experiences incorporating pets in her classroom. She learned about the Pets in the Classroom grant program while visiting America’s Family Pet Expo with her own kids a few years back.
“I previously had classroom pets — hermit crabs, fish and hamsters,” she said. “I’m not really an animal person but I know how much kids love animals.”
She applied for the grant and got Elway the guinea pig in May 2016. He’s almost 4. He is named after John Elway, the former Denver Broncos quarterback. (Cockerill’s husband is from Denver and is a huge Broncos fan.)
“He is technically my pet, but he goes home with students on the weekends during the school year,” she said. “They write about their adventures with him. In the summer, he lives in our backyard. I have a 7- and 9-year-old that look after him.”
She has seen many benefits of having a pet in the classroom, including helping with anxiety, stress reduction, self-esteem and empathy. She’s also noticed how Elway helps with her students’ creativity.
“Students use Elway as a character in writing stories,” she said. “Kids feel connected to our class. We have a shared responsibility.”
Cockerill said the kids enjoy cuddling with him during independent reading. And Elway seems to enjoy them too.
“He has learned that he will usually get snacks after recess or lunch when kids give him their food scraps, so he squeaks when he hears the bells,” she said.
But kids get to choose how involved they are with Elway. Feeding him, cleaning his cage, having him at their desk and taking him home over the weekend are all optional activities.
“A couple of years ago I had a student with special emotional needs,” she said. “Every day he would take a moment to talk to or pet Elway. It was incredible to watch the calming effect. I have to admit that when I’m feeling like I need a brain break, I too walk over to Elway and scratch his nose or give him a treat. He is pretty special.”
By Jessica Peralta