In-class pets provide emotional and academic benefits
(District of Columbia) A survey of teachers across the U. S. and Canada shows having a pet in the classroom can help teach students empathy, respect and responsibility for living things, and boost leadership skills.
The results, published last week by the American Humane Association and Pet Care Trust, a non-profit organization which provides grants to help teachers acquire and care for classroom pets, were derived from online surveys and telephone interviews from 1,172 participating teachers.
Many teachers who responded said they saw similar benefits, faced similar challenges, and used classroom pets for similar purposes.
“Far and away, the most common use of classroom pets among teachers was to build responsibility and leadership among their students, particularly in the area of caring for other living things,” the report’s author, Molly Jenkins, research analyst and human-animal interaction specialist for American Humane Association, wrote.
One teacher who filled out the online survey said that students had to fill out job applications and go through an interview to demonstrate their readiness to help take care of the pet.
Research has long shown that in-class pets can help boost children’s participation, encourage interest in animal science and behavior, and teach about important life events, including death. Often times, however, student allergies and the cost of keeping an animal in the classroom act have tended to discourage teachers from considering the option.
Pet Care Trust has awarded more than 56,000 grants over the past five years to pre-kindergarten through 8th grade teachers with its Pets in the Classroom program. Teachers regularly care for fish, reptiles, guinea pigs, hamsters, or other rodents.
This latest survey showed that, in addition to helping kids gain leadership skills by taking charge of an animal’s care, having the pets nearby helps students relax and calm down, especially for those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or behavior disorders. Some teachers suggested that the sound of running water from a fish tank helped entire classrooms de-stress while others noted that petting the animals seemed to help children decrease their anxiety.
A number of teachers who saw a decrease in behavioral issues reported having used the pets as an incentive for children. In many cases, teachers leveraged time with classroom pets to promote good student behavior or increased academic achievement, while some teachers said that cleaning dirty cages or soiled bedding was used to discourage negative behavior.
In many instances, teachers reported experiences that they believed helped instill compassion and empathy in students, as they related caring for the classroom pets with caring for and helping one another. One teacher shared that how after the class turtle passed after 27 years, students wrote notes of condolences.
Students also benefited academically, according to the report, as teachers said they commonly had students read aloud to the pets to improve reading fluency. Others said students were required to write reports, short stories or poems about the pet, or log daily observations in a notebook.
Classroom pets were also used to help illustrate scientific concepts in ways more engaging than simply looking at pictures in a textbook. Teachers reported using the pets when discussing lessons on habitats, ecosystems, life cycles, genetics, adaptations and animal behavior.
One teacher who taught multiple grades said that her younger students created “dream homes” for the pet after a lesson on habitats, while her older students kept records of length and weight to measure eating habits and growth patterns.
Although those surveyed said that having a classroom pet benefited students in many ways, it also came with a number of challenges.
Sixty-five percent of teachers said that additional costs of caring for the pet outside of what was provided through the Pet Care Trust grant was the main burden. Nearly 50 percent said that caring for the animal after school hours or during holidays and summer was also difficult.
Other challenges reported include managing student interactions with the pets – such as being gentle and taking turns – and animals being a distraction from schoolwork.
The survey is part one of a two-phase study. According to the authors, these latest findings will be used to help design a more rigorous study in select elementary schools in the U.S. and Canada.