Study investigating the roles of animals in educational settings to enhance learning and wellbeing

A new study is investigating the way in which animals are included in schools and other educational settings for teaching and therapy activities.

Dog and child

The Nottingham Trent University research aims to learn more about the impacts of these ‘animal assisted interventions’ on pupils’ learning, literacy and general wellbeing – as well as the impacts on the animals themselves.

The researchers, who specialise in animal behaviour and welfare and children’s literacy development, want to address a lack of understanding in this area following an increase in the inclusion of animals such as dogs in classrooms.

Working with the support of the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) they are targeting primary and secondary schools across the world as part of the work.

The aim is to use the information to better understand the current barriers to including animals in educational settings, as well as the needs of those undertaking this work, to ensure optimal benefits to both the students and animals involved.

It is hoped the findings could be used to provide schools with additional advice, support and guidelines in this area.

While their inclusion in educational interventions has grown in popularity over the years, the researchers say that little is known about the way in which animals are managed or the activities they are involved in, and it can vary significantly from school to school.

Animals are sometimes brought into classrooms by professional organisations or charities, or sometimes schools have them living on site. Staff may also bring their own pets – usually dogs – into school with them. Additionally, students may be taken to sites such as farms to visit the animals in the environment where they usually live.

Examples of how animals are included in interventions range from children reading to dogs instead of a teacher or class, teaching children about animal biology, animal care, or more generally about empathy through interactions with different animals.

The researchers want to identify what educators see as the benefits and also potential risks to involving animals in order to enhance learning – and to hear from schools who don’t currently engage with animals in educational activities, to understand the potential reasons.

“The concept of including animals in educational settings to enhance student learning, concentration and wellbeing is becoming increasingly popular,” said researcher Dr Lauren Finka, an animal welfare expert in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences.

She said: “Despite this, we know relatively little about how animals are actually being, handled, managed and the activities they are involved in in these situations and how this might impact both positively and negatively upon them. It’s very likely that certain species and temperaments of animals are much more suited to be involved in these sorts of interventions than others, but as a starting point, we really just want to get a better idea of what species are being included and how.

“We hope that we can then use this information to highlight where further advice, support and guidelines could be targeted to ensure as much as possible that sessions are undertaken to the benefit of both the children and animals involved.”

Dr Emma Vardy, a lecturer in the psychology department, said: “Animals, especially dogs, in educational contexts anecdotally offer numerous benefits to children. Learning to read is a complex skill to master, and reading to a dog, for some children can possibly alleviate fear associated to reading aloud, so that a child can practice reading, developing their reading skills in a safe and secure environment.

“There is little robust evidence, however, to support observations regarding the benefits of these activities, hence the need for our project. Furthermore, as well as the children, we need to consider the welfare of the animals in these situations and support educational settings to implement high quality animal assisted interventions which benefit children and consider the animal’s welfare.”

Elizabeth Ormerod, the Society for Companion Animal Studies Chair, said: “The Society for Companion Animal Studies was delighted to award a grant to researchers at Nottingham Trent University to research the educational and therapeutic roles played by companion animals in schools, and about how their involvement is managed to help ensure safety and well-being for both children and animals.

“This global study, collating information from primary and secondary schools, will also provide information about the species involved and how they participate in the classroom setting. The knowledge obtained will enable the researchers to contribute to the development of best practice guidelines for safe practice and animal welfare in schools.”

If you work in a school or other educational setting and would like to complete the survey you can do so via this link.