How animals aid a trauma-informed approach to education

It is not unusual for animals to be brought in for school visits these days – given our growing appreciation of pets’ ability to keep children calm. But how many schools put animals at the very heart of their curriculum? Henry Hepburn visits a Renfrewshire special school where vulnerable pupils interact with dogs, tortoises and ponies throughout the school day, helping them to build relationships and control their emotions
3rd January 2020, 12:04am
How Animals Can Support A Trauma-informed Approach To Education
Henry Hepburn


How animals aid a trauma-informed approach to education

Andrew* sits in the corner of a room in a school where, it's fairly safe to assume, animals play in bigger role in the curriculum than anywhere else in Scotland.

The 10-year-old leans forward as two little dogs - a Jack Russell named Buzz and a Jackahuahua called Holly - nuzzle into him, ignoring the several adults in the room. After a few moments, he gently shoos them away and turns to Monster, the tortoise in the tank on the table beside him, and carefully lifts him on to the floor.

Andrew's movements are deft, his affection and sense of responsibility clear, and, in his softly spoken way, he proceeds to tell us every aspect of what you need to do to ensure that these animals thrive.

"That would never happen without those animals," says Angela Pilkington, depute headteacher. When she started at the school, it took Andrew two weeks even to approach her. But the dogs calm and reassure him, and help him to find the space and confidence to talk eloquently about what he's doing and what's on his mind.

Crucially, the dogs are a permanent feature: with the school having researched in detail how staff can help vulnerable pupils, the conviction is that their impact can be so profound that there should always be some time with the dogs - and other animals - just around the corner.

Forest View Primary School specialises in working with children who have experienced trauma or adversity, or who may have had problems at school for other reasons, perhaps as a result of autism or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

Every pupil has previously been in a mainstream school, but all struggled. Some children were put on one-to-one support outwith the classroom; some had their education cut to one or two hours a day - sometimes dropping to as low as one or two hours a week; and some were refusing point-blank to go to school. Even if they did make it in, they might run out of class, become disruptive or struggle to build relationships with peers and adults.

Forest View, which describes itself as a "therapeutic school campus", has eight pupils but capacity for 30 eventually. It is part of the Kibble charity and social enterprise, which is based in Paisley and Glasgow and, in various ways, supports young people who are at risk or who have experienced trauma in their early years. Forest View opened four years ago but moved to its current semi-rural site, in Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, only in August. Research suggesting the benefits for pupils of being in open areas and having sprawling fields and woodland with dense knots of beech trees just a few seconds from the door was crucial in choosing this location.

Classes have six pupils at most, always with a qualified teacher and at least one other professional, as classroom support workers and child and youth care workers also play critical roles. Child psychotherapists also come to school every day, for one-to-one or small group sessions with each child, and feed back to the teacher how best to work with a child at that particular time.

All staff are fully trained in trauma-informed practice - and their knowledge and skills are constantly refined - and the school is unusual in having care, education and therapeutic services under one roof. The school is acutely aware that children have not only missed education milestones but also developmental ones. A key worker is assigned to each child, who will speak to their family every morning, at points throughout the school day, and at home time.

"Relationships for us are absolutely key. We're not going to have the success with our pupils unless we're all working together," says Pilkington.

This is a critical point, as the University of the West of Scotland's Professor Ross Deuchar stressed in an article for Tes Scotland last June. After 20 years of research involving children in disadvantaged communities, he reflected that exposure to multiple "adverse childhood experiences" (ACEs), and the trauma that some children may be suffering, had a "profound" negative impact on how they interact with other people.

And at Forest View, animals play a critical role in helping children to build relationships. Rhona Dorrington is outdoor engagement coordinator at the school but also owner of Buzz and Holly, and has seen the therapeutic value of animals with children in roles before she joined Forest View last year.

She recalls one six-year-old who had shut down emotionally and didn't speak. She was given regular therapeutic sessions with a horse but the girl still appeared largely unresponsive for a long time. Dorrington says she had a lump in her throat when, after three painstaking years, the girl finally felt moved to pat the horse.

Pilkington also has story of an incident in her career that got her thinking about the power of animals: a child who was struggling badly, and becoming a danger to himself and to others, suddenly pointed to the ground and exclaimed, "Oh, a ladybird!" - then he instantly relaxed and calmed down.

What is it, then, that animals can offer to children at Forest View?

"They're non-judgemental and they're in the present - they don't carry over stuff from previously … if a child presents in a certain way that day, the animal's just going to be the same," says Dorrington.

Aside from the consistency and lack of baggage that Holly and Buzz offer, pupils also learn from changes in the dogs' behaviour. If, for the example, a class isn't settled, the dogs won't settle. And every child wants one of the dogs to sit on their lap, says Dorrington, "but if you're too loud, they're not going to".

"Transitions" during the school day - such as the first lesson after arriving at school - can be difficult for the pupils, and these are times where they are liable to be restless. But when they see the dogs there, and the impact of all that noise at the start of the day, they think about how it makes the dog feel: you might now hear pupils admonishing peers to "use your quiet voice" to make the dog feel better.

Animals also help to build trust between children and adults. Pupils at Forest View can be very wary of adults, but a dog can act as a safe intermediary - a conduit for a relationship with a "strange adult", as Dorrington puts it.

Pupils coming to Forest View often struggle with boundaries and self-discipline, as well as a poor sense of personal safety that leaves some, for example, liable to run on to a road without looking. Three Shetland ponies that Dorrington brings to the school each week - Jessica, Josephine and Sophie - have been "amazing" in helping with all of these issues, especially when children take them out for a walk on the road.

"Some of the young people are maybe not aware of their own safety, but if they have to stop and think about [the safety of] the critter that they're dealing with, then it helps to get an awareness of themselves as well," says Dorrington. "So, they might think, 'If I'm running then I might trip over and squish the dog,' [rather than staff] directly saying, 'Don't do this,' in an autocratic way."

Dogs can also help with literacy. It is quite possible that a child arriving at Forest View would not be able to read at the age of 8 or 9, or even recite the alphabet. After one or two months, however, parents have been "astounded" by progress, says Pilkington.

Encouraging pupils to read to a dog has been a factor: the bond between the two and the tranquillity of the dog help the child to relax and find enjoyment in books, which they might previously only have associated with stress and anxiety.

The ponies, meanwhile, have been used in maths: pupils could, for example, calculate their weight and length, and the children respond well to seeing the connections between abstract mathematical contexts and the very real mammals standing before them.

Chick this out

A research visit across the Atlantic to Green Chimneys School in New York State - which has been pioneering in its integration of animals into the curriculum - showed Forest View staff that the type of animal chosen is often critical. There, for example, children may have more of an affinity with a rescue dog, because they relate to the pain the dog has experienced in its life.

This is why Forest View wants to emulate the HenPower charity project in Newcastle, which uses former battery hens to bring together children and elderly care-home residents, who jointly look after the animals and take part in creative arts projects.

It's important, says Dorrington, that Forest View's version uses former battery hens "rather than lovely, polished hens". There are powerful implicit messages, adds Pilkington, about the power of "love, care and nurture" in making these often bedraggled animals more content.

The Forest View approach is special, explains Pilkington, because having animals around all the time ensures that children do not have a sanitised view of them. Take in a horse for a few hours, says Dorrington, and the overriding impression of pupils may be "Oh it's so shiny, it's so clean" - but that's not what they are likely to think at Forest View.

"We have to do the mucky stuff, we have to clear them out, we have to look after them, and how do we know if it's well? Is it happy? Is the environment good for this animal? So there's all the learning that goes with that. They're getting a full picture of what it is to look after an animal, the commitment involved."

Merely bringing in animals now and again risks being tokenistic, says Dorrington, and at Forest View it might even be counter-productive: in a school where routine and consistency are so important, to have a memorable few hours with some animals then take them away, with no attempt to build up a proper relationship, could actually be damaging.

So what's next? The school hopes to bring children a little further out of their comfort zone by taking in a corn snake soon. Further down the line, staff also hope the school will become home to some rescue goats. The long-term dream is to create a full farm with sheep and horses.

Already, however, staff say the animals have played a big role in helping Forest View pupils to see school in a very different, more positive light.

One seven-year-old came up to Pilkington recently and said: "Angela, I don't just like this school - I absolutely love this school."

With reactions like that, Forest View's collection of animals is only going to grow and grow.

Henry Hepburn is news editor at Tes Scotland

This article originally appeared in the 3 January 2020 issue under the headline "Animal magnetism"

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