I sometimes believe that animals have it more together than us humans. Ants and termites work together to build immense structures without complaint; dogs, cats and other domesticated small animals are loyal and provide joy to many, yet have only simple needs of food, fresh water and care. Animals in the wild don’t gloat about or upload photos of their kill before they eat it. They have utmost respect for one another.
I am animal lover. From the time I was old enough to have an animal, I have never been without animals. We were taught as children when we took an animal into our family, we also took on the responsibility of making sure that their needs were met each and every day.
Cultures around the world incorporate animals or animal stories to instill social morals in their kids. Children tend to be kinder to other children when they are taught to be kind to an animal. Animals in the classroom add the element of compassion that our educational system often omits from the equation when test scores are valued over character.
Animals and sentience
Animals pursue their wants and needs as we do — with intentions and preferences. Their lives matter to them. Their desire for rewards is part of sentience — the capacity to feel. Sentience encompasses a universe of positive and negative physical and emotional experiences.
Most scientists today agree that all vertebrate animals — mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish — are, to some extent, sentient. Children need to understand this.
Animals as teachers
Animals are powerful teachers, able to convey many messages without any words.
Gwendolyn Purdom, in the Washingtonian’s “Teacher’s Pets: Animals in the Classroom,” shares some interesting points on how schools use animals to teach students confidence, compassion and other things they cant get from a textbook or the internet.
▪ Responsibility. From providing fresh water and food and maintaining the habitat, knowing that something depends on you is empowering.
Students bounce into my room in the morning to say hi to the animals and assume their role of caretaker. Some of them aren’t allowed to have pets at home, so having a class pet allows them to experience interaction with animals, which helps them to experience new emotions, learn new skills and understand the feeling of having something dependent on them.
One of the main issues with keeping animals in the classroom is ownership. If the animal belongs to the classroom, who is responsible? This can lead to a quandary when it comes time for summer, school vacations or long weekends.
Animals should not be brought into a classroom or any environment for that matter without thoughtful planning for the future. It is unfair and moreover unethical to bring in an animal to the classroom only to abandon it at the end of the year. As such, this responsibility sits with the teacher.
▪ Empathy and Core Values. There will always be those who gain pleasure from others pain. But today, we are creating a different generation of children who lack empathy and emotion. Children who live in a virtual world and play video games where killing and wounding video characters occur without thought, let alone remorse. Texts are sent without emotion. The whole idea is quite chilling.
In my classroom, where you can find anything from pythons to hairless rats, I remind my students of their power and responsibility to respect animals. Too many children, especially those who have never had a pet, have the idea that animals don’t count and many simply negate the fact that animals feel pain.
Kids learn that if they want to be liked and trusted by the family cat, they’ll need to treat her carefully and kindly. This sort of training benefits all kids, but is especially important to small boys. What would happen to school violence if more classrooms incorporated pets into the curriculum?
▪ The Natural World. Environmental education is based on life experiences and should begin early in life. These experiences play a critical role in shaping lifelong attitudes, values, and patterns of behavior toward natural environments and the things that live there.
For many children, these opportunities are limited. Recreation tends to be indoors (internet, video gaming, watching TV); transportation tends to be by car rather than walking; education — where many children spend most of their waking hours — tends to be oriented more toward the classroom than the outdoors.
The result is that many young children risk never developing positive attitudes and feelings toward the natural environment or never achieving a healthy degree of familiarity with their environment.
▪ Knowledge. Having animals in the classroom provides kids with the opportunity for hands-on learning about some part of the natural world. They learn the animal’s place of origin, dietary needs, life cycles, and personality tendencies. They work with substrates and get to know why which animal requires a specific typed. Students become icons of compassion as they show others how to respect the animals.
Animals as game changers
Animals in the classroom also provide a calming effect. From reading assistance dogs or the bubbles of an aquarium, the soothing effect of being alongside an animal allows some kids to deal with the struggles of school. For example, students have been known to practice so they can read better to their animal.
Even kids with no exposure to animals or nature in their home environment can see, feel, touch and make connections to the wide world of animals. Observing and caring for an animal instills a respect for life and an increased sensitivity and awareness of other people’s feelings and needs. Lastly, studies show that the presence of animals tends to lessen tension in the classroom.
Animals Bring New Ways to Teach Things
Whether it’s math (“how much does a hamster weigh?”), science (“what does a snake eat?”), geography (“what part of the world do ferrets come from?”) or writing (“what words would we use to describe a goldfish?”), students will approach learning all these subjects with a new enthusiasm and interest.
Other classes can even come visit your classroom pets and your students can create special presentations about the animals.
Studies show that children from families with pets are better equipped to fight off infection than kids from non-pet households, showing significantly higher levels of immune system performance. When school attendance records were compared side by side, researchers discovered that kids with pets averaged more days at school every year than their pet-free counterparts.
Children often turn to their pets for emotional well-being, with 40% of children choosing pet companionship when feeling tired, upset, scared or lonely, and 53% of respondents said they enjoy doing homework with pets nearby.
Animals such as cats, dogs and guinea pigs love human contact and can become a child’s best buddy. Kids can even develop strong human animal bonds with non-responsive animals such as fish or turtles. These relationships help to strengthen a child’s social skills, giving them the potential to do better in a school setting.
Dr Harvey Markovitch, pediatrician and editor of The Archives of Disease in Childhood says that being around animals is extremely good for children. He notes that animals are good for morale, and teach children about relationships and about the needs of another living being — caring for a pet helps them to learn how to care for people.
Studies have shown that children with pets have higher levels of self-esteem than those without pets. Helping to take care of a pet gives a child a sense of pride and accomplishment, especially if the animal is able to return the affection. Children who care for a pet understands the importance of he/she does — and will typically want to continue it.
Serious Considerations Before Getting a Pet
Having a pet is not for everyone. Animals are not for entertainment or experimentation. Furthermore, the classroom should welcome only friendly and manageable animals. No animal should be brought into a home or classroom before its care — both financially and time/effort parameters — have been considered and committed to. As a parent or teacher, this means:
▪ You know what you are investing in and that it does not involve factory breeding or illicit trade in invasive or protected species;
▪ You know the needs of the animal and are committed to providing all that is required (There is a Pets in the Classroom program (www.petsintheclassroom.org) that helps teachers offset costs of aquariums, bedding, cages, food and the animals themselves);
▪ You are aware of the need to protect the animal from over handling, accidents, and cruelty;
▪ You are aware of any safety/health issues pertaining to the handling of the animal or its materials;
▪ You are aware of any student health issues that would be affected by the presence of the animal;
▪ You are committed to maintaining a clean environment (kids can be in charge, but responsibility remains with the adult);
▪ You are prepared to ensure the care of the animal during vacations or weekends
▪ You are prepared to deal with disease or death.
Alternatives to a class pet
If you are not quite sure you are ready to take on the responsibility of an animal, you might:
▪ Sponsor and follow an animal from an animal rescue;
▪ Get involved with an animal rescue/refuge as community service;
▪ Borrow an animal from a family for a few days.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.