It comes as no surprise that humane educators frequently have difficulties getting the attention of teachers and schools. Given the incredible pressures and challenges schools face as they try to adequately prepare students to lead successful lives in the 21st century, animals often do not fit into the discussion. However, providing students an opportunity to talk about animals in schools deserves more consideration than saying, “it would be nice, but we don’t have time.” Talking about animals uniquely provides students an ideal forum to practice the skills they will need in the 21st century, such as listening, perspective-taking and critical thinking; skills business leaders claim are missing in the workforce. Business leaders surveyed by Peter D. Hart Associates in 2008 say they struggle with employees who do not work well on teams, do not participate well in discussions and cannot appreciate other’s views. The lack of social skills has also been identified in schools. Only 29-45% of surveyed 6-12th graders report that they had social competencies such as empathy, decision making and conflict resolution skills, and only 29% say their schools provide a caring, encouraging environment (Benson, 2006).
The absence of a supportive environment in schools may mirror what is happening society-wide. Since the 1960s, various social and public health surveys show a fragmentation of traditional social support systems. The number of Americans living alone and the divorce rate has increased, and the time people spend socializing or engaging with the local community has decreased. A rise in the proportion of the population that feel they lack a sense of belonging or a sense of obligation to others is not only detrimental to society as a whole, but also impacts individual health and well-being, as well as academic success in school (Durlak, et al., 2011).
Talking about animals and learning about relationships with animals serves as the perfect vehicle to allow young students to practice the social and emotional skills they need to be successful. Children, whether they have pets in the home or not, appear to be innately drawn to the world of non-human animals (Melson, 2001) and, therefore, are highly engaged in learning about them. Often children’s relationships with pets are central to their lives at home, and yet they have few opportunities to discuss their feelings with their peers. Children can connect with others over their shared interest and experiences with animals, and they can begin to unpack the elements that make up a good relationship, understand for themselves what it means to be “humane” and practice thinking about the well-being of others. When humane education is taught – as all subject matter should be – with respect for the individual, with respect for a student’s right to question, then humane education also provides students the opportunity to practice thinking critically and making decisions about what they believe: skills they need to participate effectively in a democracy.
Anyone who has learned to observe and listen to animals for what they need, whether it’s food, a bathroom break or play time, can understand how a pet can provide an opportunity to develop empathy and the ability to pay attention to another being. Studies show that children with strong attachments to pets rate higher on measures of empathy and social skills (Daly & Morton, 2006, 2009). It is also clear that even if children have pets, their bonds to them are highly variable; and poor attachment, negative attitudes and cruelty towards pets correlate with less empathy and weaker social skills (Thompson & Gullone, 2003, 2008). Relationships with pets are typically easier to understand than relationships with people, given a pet’s more consistent behavioral cues and the constant positive regard pets typically exude. In addition, children often have far more control over a relationship with a pet than other members of their family, and older children often become the primary caretaker. In this way, pets serve as an emotionally safe testing ground for children to practice relationship skills, which may also explain why children have a much easier time discussing relationships with animals than relationships with people. Giving children the opportunity to understand and sort out these relationships early on and to help them link these relationships to their interactions with people can help set the stage for better relating with others throughout their lives. And for children who do not have pets in their lives, learning about these relationships and practicing basic skills like observing behavior and taking the perspectives of others is arguably even more important.
Students learn in the context of the classroom, and how students interact with their teacher and peers can have a huge impact on their success in school (Durlak, et al., 2011). Introducing a program that models elements of positive relationships between humans and pets and uses open-ended question strategies to engage students in discussions, like the RedRover Readers program, can help teachers build a supportive, collaborative classroom culture, where both teacher and students genuinely listen to each other, build connections based on shared interests and experiences and practice understanding perspectives other than their own.
Please visit YouTube for sample videos of the RedRover Readers program in action.
Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. (2008). How should colleges assess and improve student learning? Employers’ views on the accountability challenge: A survey of employers conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC.
Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling alone. New York: Simon & Shuster.
Benson, P.L. (2006). All kids are our kids: What communities must do to raise caring and responsible children and adolescents. (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Daly, B. & Morton, L.L. (2006). An investigation of human–animal interactions and empathy as related to pet preference, ownership, attachment, and attitudes in children. Anthrozoös, 19(2), 113-127.
Daly, B. & Morton, L.L. (2009). Empathic differences in adults as a function of childhood and adult pet ownership and pet type. Anthrozoös, 21(2), 123-127.
Durlak, J.A., Wessberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R.D., Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.
Melson, G. F. (2001). Why the wild things are: Animals in the lives of children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Thompson, K.L. & Gullone, E. (2008). Prosocial and antisocial behaviors in adolescents: An investigation into associations with attachment and empathy. Anthrozoös, 21(2), 123-127.
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