The debate rages on about the best way to educate our children. Parents, politicians, and educators all place responsibility for underachievement in our schools on the structure and function of the schools themselves. Public schools, private schools, and charter schools are constantly being compared to each other by testing results.
But maybe the focus for improving academic success shouldn’t be focused on where kids go to school. Maybe we should be looking at home, where our four-legged furry family members live, for clues on improving education.
Author Bill Strickland, in an article for Parents Magazine, writes about his daughter’s favorite reading group:
While book groups are the rage among her mother's friends, Natalie has her own reading tribe: We often find her curled up in her bed or lying in a den of blankets in a quiet nook of the house, reading to one or more of her cats. She pets them as she reads, [and] stops to show them pictures and ask them questions. She even reassures them during scary parts of the story.
That's no surprise, says Mary Renck Jalongo, PhD, education professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and author of The World of Children and Their Companion Animals. Educators have long known that bringing therapy animals (mostly dogs) into schools helps developmentally challenged kids learn. Now they are finding that all children can benefit from the presence of a nonjudgmental pal with paws. In one study, children were asked to read in front of a peer, an adult, and a dog. Researchers monitored their stress levels, and found that kids were most relaxed around the animals, not the humans.
"If you're struggling to read and someone says, 'Time to pick up your book and work,' that's not a very attractive offer," Dr. Jalongo says. "Curling up with a dog or cat, on the other hand, is a lot more appealing."
Studies worldwide confirm Dr. Jalongo’s views and demonstrate other benefits of pets in the classroom.
- An Australian study found better school attendance and less vandalism in classrooms with animal mascots.
- An Austrian study demonstrated better attentiveness, improved behavior, more cooperation between children and reduced noise in classrooms when therapy dogs were introduced to primary school programs.
- In the USA, many programs have introduced more sessions where children read to dogs. The attention of the dog without interruption and lack of correction improves reading ability in these children.
- Studies suggest a close association between better academic success and greater respect for parents in families who own dogs.
- Multiple European studies have found that dog ownership exerts a protective effect in young people that reduces the likelihood of gang involvement, drugs, and crime.
- U.S. studies have found that children with pets are more academically motivated and do better in school.
- In a survey study of children, 53% said they enjoyed doing homework with pets nearby.
The influence of pets on learning is not restricted to the classroom. Pets help foster a sense of nurturing and concern for others. Dr. Gail F. Melson, PhD, and professor emerita in the department of human development and family studies at Purdue University, studied the impact of pets on learning nurturing behavior:
"Nurturing isn't a quality that suddenly appears in adulthood when we need it," she says. "And you don't learn to nurture because you were nurtured as a child. People need a way to practice being caregivers when they're young."
Dr. Melson’s research looked at the influence of pets and how humans learn nurturing behavior. In one study she found that children over three years old spent more than ten minutes per day actively caring for their pets versus less than 2.5 minutes in the same 24 hours caring for or playing with a younger sibling. Dr. Melson feels this learning with pets is important for teaching children the parenting skills they will need in later life, particularly boys.
"Nurturing animals is especially important for boys because taking care of an animal isn't seen as a 'girl' thing, like babysitting, playing house, or playing with dolls," Dr. Melson says. “By age 8, girls are more likely to be involved than boys in baby care, both inside and outside their homes, but when it comes to pet care, both genders remain equally involved.”
The research clearly shows that pets can be important in the academic success of children, particularily in helping them develop emotional intelligence. Perhaps we should focus on how children best learn rather than what type of school they attend.
Dr. Ken Tudor