Therapy dogs aid calm and learning for students at St Thomas Aquinas Primary School
15 May 2019
St Thomas Acquinas Primary School shows how support therapy dogs can help to reduce anxiety and boost the confidence of students with special needs.
Rod Sims is the Principal of St. Thomas Aquinas Primary School in Norlane, Victoria. He explains how K9 calm in the classroom presents a myriad of learning benefits and promotes student mental wellbeing.
“Sometimes the dogs are here to support children with anxiety, or anger issues, and assist children with their reading and communication skills,” explains Mr Sims.
Delta Society therapy dogs handler Laurynda, says that most of the children adore Dali the Labrador, who visits each week. She described the positive impact Dali has on student wellbeing and learning.
“Working with the kids and the dogs, it’s just a really good opportunity for breaking down those barriers that some students have with their learning. Sometimes students might be a bit nervous around adults for example, and they might find it easier sitting there and reading to a dog instead of an adult. Sometimes they just want to sit and tell the dog a story rather than read at all. It’s just a really good way of boosting their confidence, there’s no judgment or anything from the dogs and Dali is always happy to see the kids. That’s my role as a handler, just to bring the happiness and the joy, and through Dali hopefully bring some calm to the room as well.”
Rod believes that therapy dogs encourage positive feelings and behaviour such as empathy, kindness, and gentleness.
“Students find benefits in reading, learning about responsibility, and they practice more self-control when Dali is around.”
“The dogs help to de-escalate tension and reduce high emotions of anger that can bring about tantrums, meltdowns and so on. It’s the most natural thing for a human to want to pat a dog and to want to communicate with them, even if it’s without words,” he says.
Sims explains the overall environment is better when Dali visits, and that more schools could benefit from having therapy dogs.
“One of the things that therapy dogs do in a school… they just make the place calmer. It helps, especially for children who are going through a difficult time. When they see Dali or another therapy dog in the school you can see a student’s demeanour change. They just calm down.”
The idea of bringing therapy dogs into the school came about because Rod noticed a teacher who used to bring a dog to school and he saw the positive effect it was having on the children. Rod also introduced other programs to benefit student wellbeing and support their families in practical ways.
“When the Ford factory closed down it had an economic effect here in this part of Victoria. This community changed a lot over 20 or 30 years. It was a very different community in the 1960s when everybody was employed. Now we’ve got about 120 families with kids at our school and 114 of those have healthcare cards. So, we know that there’s not a lot of money to be found in families that have a healthcare card.”
The school started a breakfast club as a way of bringing the students an opportunity to share their morning meal with other children, and help some kids get a nutritious start to the day in case breakfast was missed at home.
“Our three Catholic secondary schools in Geelong: Sacred Heart, Clonard, and St. Joseph’s come once a week for our Breakfast Club. We run the Breakfast Club every day, and have about 50 or 60 children join us for breakfast in the morning. We’ve had parents get accredited barista qualifications through our coffee club. We house that in a converted shipping container. They went through the course here at our café and received training through one of the community centres as well; and then they were able to get employment from that, which is pretty good!”
Other schools in the community share in the programs run at St. Thomas Aquinas.
“St. Joseph’s College has a group of boys with some additional learning needs and they come here every Monday. They make coffees, they’ve been taught how to do it all properly. That’s part of our connection with our school community.”
Rod wants all students to feel optimistic about their future and have a vision of themselves in future careers. He knows that the best way for students to become motivated is to see for themselves what opportunities they have through learning and feeling confident; explaining that a furry ear lends some encouragement towards this, and it’s a good thing.
“Our grade 5/6 class has just been working on possible careers and had a person who works for Nintendo come in to speak to them about his work. They heard about game development and how marketing works. We’ve got children who say they want to be a chef, a doctor. We took all of these kids to Deakin University a couple of weeks ago. We showed them out there in the real world, so they could see,” he says.
“It gave them an opportunity to think about how “I could go here and I could do something and become a nurse, or I could become that…” It opens their minds. We took another group to the Deakin Cadet Centre and that was all about science and technology. Being able to provide links to the community means that our children can see that if they try they can be all of these different things. Your background doesn’t pigeon hole you here, it’s something you have to work at to get over those challenges, but yes you can do it.”
Therapy dogs work in a range of settings outside of schools including aged care, disability services, palliative facilities, and even correctional centres or prisons. Key to the success of the initiative was to find the right dogs for the school in order to manage risks for the animals and humans.
“We made sure we used trained therapy dogs and that they have certified handlers. We always keep teachers present with children while the dog is on the premises. And Dali, by the way, is one big softie for story time.”
School pets or animals used for student learning and development may or may not need approval, but it’s worth checking the application process in your state. The Victorian Schools Animal Ethics Committee (VSAEC) is one state body that requires no approval if animals are used for the educational enrichment of students in the classroom, but the school is responsible for the welfare of these animals at all times. Schools are the primary carer and need to arrange for animals to be looked after during weekends and school holidays, and given veterinary care when needed.
About St Thomas' Aquinas School
St Thomas' Aquinas School is an important part of the Norlane community in Victoria. With the Gospel values of respect, compassion, justice and service, the school and its community celebrate its Catholic identity and its connections with the parish. Principal Rodney Sims recognises that wellbeing is at the heart of all learning and that children learn best when they are happy, safe and valued. St Thomas Aquinas values positive behaviour (School Wide Positive Behaviour), repairing relationships (RRRR and Restorative Practices) and positive education (Berry Street Trauma Informed Positive Education) and have staff that are committed to these.
Learning is central to the school. Children are supported and challenged to consolidate and extend their learning in all areas, especially English, mathematics and STEM. St Thomas Aquinas values its connections with the wider community and seeks to put back in through social justice programs locally and outside Australia. St Thomas Aquinas welcomes parent involvement in children's learning and provides opportunities for parents and carers to become more involved in programs that support learning for their children.