Grading Classroom Pets
An ongoing study commissioned by the Pet Care Trust is revealing the positive impact that classroom pets can have on students in a number of developmental areas.
Do schools that encourage classroom pets provide a better educational experience for their students than those that do not? The answer to that intriguing question may be close at hand, thanks to the American Humane Association and the Pet Care Trust. The two organizations recently collaborated on an extensive survey of nearly 1,200 teachers throughout North America on their views regarding the educational value of classroom pets. The study revealed that having a classroom pet can teach children important values like compassion, empathy, respect and responsibility for other living things.
Beginning in January 2010, the Pet Care Trust launched the Pets in the Classroom (PIC) program, providing grants to teachers to obtain a small animal, reptile, aquarium fish or bird for their classroom, along with the habitat and supplies needed to care for the pet. As the program became more widely known through social media, teacher blogs and promotions sponsored by the Trust’s retail partners, the number of grants skyrocketed. Through the 2014-2015 school year, more than 57,000 grants have been awarded.
Teachers with pets in their classrooms are eager to share their stories with others. (For a sampling of case studies highlighting selected teachers’ experiences, visit the blog section of the PIC website, petsintheclassroom.org.) But the Pet Care Trust Board felt that a more comprehensive study of the impact of pets in classrooms was needed.
The American Humane Association (AHA) is the country’s first national humane organization, and the only one dedicated to protecting both children and animals. The organization is also at the forefront of efforts to understand the human-animal bond and its role in therapy, medicine and society. When approached by the Pet Care Trust about conducting research into the impact of classroom pets, AHA quickly developed a research proposal. Funding was secured through the support of Healthy Pet of Ferndale, Wash., along with grants from the American Pet Products Association, Pet Industry Distributors Association and World Pet Association.
The results of the Phase I Study of Pets in the Classroom confirmed the anecdotal stories that teachers have been relating. Teachers view both the uses and benefits of classroom pets as primarily centering around six objectives:
• Teaching children responsibility and leadership via animal care.
• Teaching children compassion, empathy and respect for all living things, including animals, humans, nature and the world we share.
• Enhancing and enriching a variety of traditional academic lessons, from science to language arts.
• Providing an avenue for relaxation when children are stressed or when their behavior is unstable and/or challenging to manage (for both typically developing children and those with special needs).
• Helping students feel comfortable and engaged in the classroom and with their peers, so that the school environment is more conducive to quality learning, growth and social connections.
• Exposing students to new experiences and opportunities (particularly for those who do not have pets of their own), which may translate to a decrease in unfounded fears and biases among children.
The use of classroom pets to encourage responsibility and leadership was a very common theme among survey participants. “I teach [the students] how to care for the pet and to always put the pet’s needs first,” remarked one teacher.
“Student enthusiasts share their knowledge with other interested students,” stated another. “These students also direct younger students on the care, feeding and handling [of the animal].”
Phase II Expansion
The results from the first phase of the study have already added considerable insight into an important but little studied teaching tool. While classroom pets have been incorporated into many schools’ curriculum, some jurisdictions discourage or outright prohibit them due to fear of allergies, zoonotic disease transmission or bites. More research needs to be conducted to further study the positive impact of pets on student performance and to overcome the objections that are based on preventable problems.
The Pet Care Trust and AHA hope to undertake a follow up study—Phase II—that will build on the Phase I findings by measuring the impact of classroom pets for children aged eight to 10 years in three areas:
1. Social skills—communications, cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, engagement and self-control
2. Competing problem behaviors—bullying, hyperactivity/inattention and Autism Spectrum
3. Academic competence—reading achievement, math achievement, and motivation to learn
Data will be collected over the course of 10 weeks during the fall school term, with students being assessed by their teachers, parents and the children themselves, and results compared with a control group of students who are in classrooms without a pet.
If the study results confirm that students exposed to classroom pets experience increased social skills, decreased problem behaviors and improved academic competence, teachers and parents may one day come to expect that pets will be a regular feature of every classroom. This will be a good thing for our nation’s youth and for the pet industry.
Steve King is a 30-year pet industry veteran who is president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association and executive director of the Pet Care Trust.