"Never work with children or animals" is a phrase regularly bandied about in the media, because of the chaos that often ensues when they fail to stick to the script (see any television blooper show for evidence). Clearly teachers can't avoid working with the former, but should they consider introducing the latter to the classroom to resolve behavioural issues?
As hare-brained as the idea might sound, recent research suggests that it has some merit. Late last year, Marguerite O'Haire, of the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia, unveiled the findings of an eight-week study. This had introduced guinea pigs to classrooms to see if they could improve social skills and reduce bad behaviour.
Before the research got under way, teachers and parents completed questionnaires about the children selected for the study, detailing characteristics such as their social skills and incidences of bad behaviour. Of the 130 students aged 4 to 12 who took part, 64 had autism. A control group of a similar size and demographic was also created so that O'Haire could compare the results.
Each class in the animal activity group was then assigned two guinea pigs to take care of for two months. Duties included feeding the animals, cleaning the cage and creating toys for them to play with. At the end of the eight weeks, teachers and parents completed another questionnaire about the children, detailing the same behavioural aspects as the first one.
The results were positive. Students in the animal activity classes appeared to have developed better social skills and had fewer behavioural problems than their peers in the control group. The changes were particularly noticeable among children with autism, O'Haire says.
"The core challenge that children with autism face is social interaction with other people," the academic explains. "As a result these kids are often bullied, rejected and isolated in schools.
"Animals are non-judgemental, so the kids with autism felt comfortable around the guinea pigs and everybody came together in taking care of them, which allowed the autistic children to have a common bond with their peers and to start to socialise more. Neural data showed that it also helped to reduce stress levels of kids with autism."
Back to nature
O'Haire admits that she cannot say with any certainty why the guinea pigs had such an impact on classroom behaviour. One possible answer is the "biophilia hypothesis".
"We grew up around animals and nature, but in today's society we spend all our time inside buildings, surrounded by technology. We rarely interact with anything living, so when we are around something that's living, we are drawn to it and it has a soothing effect on us," she explains.
Another reason why the animals might have improved behaviour is because they are often seen as a social buffer. "Particularly for kids who have high social anxiety, having an animal there seems to help calm them down and gives them something to talk about and an ally in a social situation," O'Haire says.
Although the academic's study focused solely on guinea pigs because of the impracticalities of introducing a larger animal that needed more care and attention to a classroom, O'Haire says that researchers have also witnessed positive behavioural effects from looking after other animals.
Michal Motro, a senior lecturer in animal-assisted education and therapy at the David Yellin Academic College of Education in Jerusalem, is one of those researchers. She has introduced a number of different animals to classrooms - even snakes - to see what impact they have on children's behaviour.
According to Motro, she has seen similar results to those witnessed by O'Haire, and she believes that when it comes to choosing a classroom pet, it is very much a case of horses for courses.
"I think guinea pigs are good, because they are easy to feed and happily enter shelters that are made for them," she says. "Also their young are born precocial [in an advanced state of development] so you can tell them apart, notice the differences in their personality, weigh them and watch them grow.
"Snakes are also good for children who are at that stage where they need to show how brave they are, but if you use snakes there is the problem of feeding. Ultimately, it is down to the teacher to search for an animal that children are willing to work with within the context of a classroom."
One way of finding a good fit is by organising a field trip to a farm or a zoo. "This can be a great way to get a feel for how children are going to respond to animals and to teach them about caring for animals," O'Haire says.
Although she admits that mixing children and animals is a sizeable commitment, if teachers are willing to put in the time, O'Haire is confident that - based on the findings of her research to date - they will reap the rewards.
"As a motivational tool, animals are a great way of promoting good behaviour in children," she says. "Just by allowing the kids to spend some time sitting near the animal they can also be used to help calm children down if they're feeling stressed, and if they're less stressed, they're less likely to act up."