Was it the great John Noakes, legendary 1970s Blue Peter presenter, who said never work with children or animals? Well I have completely ignored his esteemed advice, because at Limspfield Grange School we have lots of both.
The most common issue for the girls who attend Limspfield Grange, a special school for girls with autism, is their anxiety. The girls have described anxiety as “a wild and savage beast” in a novel they wrote together called M in the Middle, a sequel to a previous novel they penned called M is for Autism.
The girls often refer to a rollercoaster of anxiety when they talk about their feelings. They feel trapped by anxiety; exhausted by its continuous bone rattling, disorientating motion. Anxiety causes them to shutdown; to freeze; to lose their words; to scream. It is overpowering, debilitating and ever present. In the worst cases it stops the girls from functioning or living their lives as they would choose.
We have found one powerful weapon to use against the tyrannical anxiety, and that is spending time with animals.
We have a wide (and seemingly ever growing) community of animals including dogs, sheep, alpacas, goats and chickens. We have a lot of dogs in school – in the art room, in the school office, in Governors’ meetings. Dog walking is offered as part of our lunchtime activity programme, and girls sign up to walk dogs at break times with members of staff.
Being with the dogs really works. Girls know that they have to be calm to be with them, and so they focus on the dog and not their anxieties. You can also talk about your anxieties and worries with others in a non-direct non-pressured way while walking a dog. It makes communicating about your anxiety less intimidating and more manageable.
Animals are wonderful vehicles for other tricky conversations too. You can talk to children and young people about how to care for animals; how they need food and water; how they need kindness and protection from harm. This can be a really useful starting point for a conversation with a young person who is not looking after themselves, or not eating or regularly self-harming. Through caring for another living creature, sometimes you can encourage students to care about themselves.
And there are academic benefits, too. Reluctant readers queue up each week to read to Meggie, who is a Pets as Therapy dog belonging to my Chair of Governors. And Bella, a Retriever Lab cross, is also good for behaviour management: she is often the starting point for a conversation about acceptable behaviour, mainly because her behaviour is pretty unacceptable.
Meanwhile, the Year 7 student who visited the alpaca enclosure when was she was cross last half term is gradually learning that animals don’t like it very much when you are dysregulated and unpredictable. Eventually we will help her to transfer this learning, and she will be able to see that humans find dysregulated and unpredictable people hard to manage too.
Obviously not every day is a James Herriot novel. We had “sheepgate” when a mischievous Year 8 liberated the sheep and they ran into the village. And a fair few parents evening sandwiches have been stolen by one of our four legged friends. But I don’t think any of us would be without the animals. They make us all feel better about our lives.
Sarah Wild is headteacher at Limpsfield Grange. M in the Middle and M is for Autism are available to order from Amazon.