Paws for thought

1st February 2013 at 00:00
Kibble Education and Care Centre works with some of Scotland's most troubled children. But those at its Lapwing Lodge campus can forget their worries when they head outdoors and work with rescue dogs

Jasper is a problem. He is young, excitable, won't do as he's told and has an attention span measured in milliseconds. But in a hard, frozen field high above Paisley, where Kibble Education and Care Centre brings its youngest pupils for outdoor education, learning comes quickly for Jasper and a collection of other young dogs of all shapes and sizes.

"If he jumps on you, turn and walk away," the trainer tells Tony Sheerin, 11. "Then come back and try again. Dogs soon learn. When he sits nicely instead of jumping, use the clicker then give him a treat."

Jasper is a black spaniel. Tony is a boy. One is being trained, the other educated. But there are a few parallels, principal teacher Tracie McEwan says. "This company we're working with - Pawsitive Action - uses rescue dogs. They explain to the children that these are dogs that are not well adjusted to society. They bark, bite and misbehave.

"But that doesn't mean they are bad dogs. They are the way they are because they've not had what they needed when they were young. They can all improve."

It's a message that goes down well with the children, she says. "Some of them make the connection. Some don't. I'm not sure I want the younger ones thinking we're comparing them with dogs. We're not. We work with young people. It's just that some approaches are effective with both."

The most obvious is that punishment, used routinely in the past, is a bad way to train or educate. "I remember being told once that a smile or a kind word from the teacher felt like getting a wee present," Mrs McEwan says. "It is true."

Kibble Education and Care Centre is one of Scotland's oldest charities. It was founded in 1859 on the present site by a bequest from a local textile family and aims to "provide a stable, purposeful, safe and happy environment for young people in trouble".

Children are sent here from all over Scotland, says executive director Joan Mackenzie. "We work with some of the most troubled children and young people. We probably would not be the first placement to be tried for them."

Anger is common in children who have seen hard times and Courtney Turner, 15, who is mentoring young Tony, was once no exception, she says. "But I've grown up a lot since I came to Kibble. I love working with the younger children, such as Tony and Ross (the other primary pupil currently at Lapwing). It's what I would like to do when I leave school.

"I never give them a row. I would feel bad if I did and it wouldn't work anyway. Kids won't listen if you shout at them, especially kids in care. They'll just blank you. You have to sit down and talk to them. I've been in care a long time, so I understand them."

For most of its existence, Kibble has provided education and care for secondary schoolboys, but recent years have seen big changes. Girls now attend, too, and since last year so do primary pupils - whose learning happens not on the main campus in Paisley, but at Lapwing Lodge, high on Gleniffer Braes, in grounds provided by the West Region Scouts.

"It's a small facility at the moment," Dr Mackenzie says, indicating an annex to the main building. "But we have access to all this wonderful outdoor space and resources, and the plan is to expand the indoor area by building a two-classroom Portakabin."

Fields, trees, streams, walks, woods and wildlife at Lapwing offer all kinds of stimulus to struggling children, Mrs McEwan says. "We try to give them a taste of the outdoors in every curriculum subject - maths, language, English, art, music, science, drama. We make paper boats to launch on the river. There's an assault course and ropes. We can camp out and cook on stoves. We can tackle cross-curricular work around different themes, such as the ancient Egyptians.

"If the children are upset about something, sitting next to the wee burn and listening to the sounds of the water often calms them down."

There is room here to run around, Tony says. "You can do fishing in the lake. It's a great place. There's a few hard bits where they don't let us play, because we might fall and cut our legs. And it's disappointing that they stopped us playing with metal poles."

He stops and thinks for a moment. "But I can see their point about that."

Wildlife such as fish and tadpoles offer great opportunities for the science curriculum, Mrs McEwan says. "There is a recent survey by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that showed an outdoor life can reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Being up here in the open air really improves the children's behaviour."

Learning also gets a boost at Lapwing. "I couldn't read at all when I first came to Kibble," Tony says, back in the little classroom. "That was only about a year ago."

He gets up from the table and returns with a big pile of books. "Now I can read all these," he says. "My favourite subject used to be maths. It's reading now."

"We went right back to basics with Tony," Mrs McEwan explains. "We have a high staff-to-pupil ratio, so we can take the time with children who are struggling. The mentoring the young ones get from older pupils such as Courtney helps a lot with their learning. And the fact that she's such a positive role-model for young ones helps with their social and emotional side."

While the classroom at Lapwing Lodge is mainly for teaching primary pupils, the outdoor areas are ideal for older children who need a break from the confines of the classroom, Mrs McEwan says. "The pupils who struggle to sit still and need to wander about - we bring them up here, too. It validates their wandering and makes it educational."

Back out in the field, young Jasper is getting the hang of things already, sitting down sometimes rather than jumping up when approached. It's remarkable progress for such a bouncy bundle of energy. "That's what you expect," Jacquie Dougan of Pawsitive Action says. "Dogs learn quickly if you do it right, with rewards and positive reinforcement for good behaviour."

So do the children at Lapwing Lodge, Mrs McEwan says. "You get kids that have always refused to work in a classroom. They will work up here - if you form the right relationship with them and give them a bit of space. I think it's because we all need to be in the right frame of mind for learning. If you are angry or tense or scared, you won't be able to sit still, pick up a pencil and do what the teacher asks.

"If they're relaxed and happy and have had a chance to play - and you have a good relationship, with no pressure on them - that's when learning starts to happen for these children."

When the outdoor training session is over most of the dogs depart, since they belong to Pawsitive Action. But young Jasper is different. His owner is Kibble duty manager Maggie Ramsay. "He did really well today," she says. "He will get there. He's still only five months old.

"I brought my last dog into school regularly. The kids loved him. We will do the same with Jasper when he's been trained. He'll be a school dog. In fact, even though he's so young and untrained, he has been in already. Some children have to stay at Kibble over the holidays and on Christmas Day. They have nobody to go home to. I brought Jasper in this year to keep them company. They loved it. He's a great wee dog."

Every Child Outdoors by the RSPB, bit.lycQ5Hxs


Every dog has different issues, says Pawsitive Action's Jacquie Dougan. "They are the same as children in that way. Each one has a different background and reacts to situations in different ways. But they can all be trained. We show children that even the smallest good behaviour gets rewarded.

Here are our top tips for training them:

- Stay calm and confident.

- Be consistent, never allowing bad behaviour and showing what you want through positive training.

- The more fun you are, the easier the training becomes. Dogs want to please you.

- All unwanted behaviour can be reconditioned by rewarding good behaviour.

- Clicker training is the best way to help all dogs, including those with fear or trust issues.

- The clicker conditions the mind to learn even the slightest move you're looking for.

- Teaching eye-to-eye contact when their name is called teaches them to trust you to deal with any situation.



The majority of children and young people at Kibble live on campus in residential units, explains executive director Joan Mackenzie.

"Some have no family. Most have some but contact might only be at weekends. It depends on individual circumstances. We also have a number of day pupils."

Youngsters are placed at Kibble from any of Scotland's authorities - even from as far away as Shetland, she says.

"We have one pupil from Orkney and several from Highland at the moment and we get a lot of kids from other cities. We specialise in the most difficult end. We work with the most troubled kids.

"We currently have 18 in our secure unit, 75 in secondary school and two in our new primary school at Lapwing," she adds.

The wide variety of services for these youngsters at Kibble ranges from the secure unit, through residential and day school to Kibble Works, where post-16s gain experience and skills for the outside word.

"I believe we're the largest facility of our kind in Britain," Dr Mackenzie says.

"For 150 years we were a boys-only facility. But for the past 18 months we have been a mixed campus. Currently we have a dozen girls here."

For more information about Kibble, see www.kibble.orghistory.

Photo: Pupils at Lapwing Lodge, a school run by the Kibble Education and Care Centre, learn how to train dogs. Photo credit: David Gordon


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