In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we want to share with you one teacher’s experience with classroom pets. As you saw in our last blog post, recent studies show the benefits of having autistic children interact with pets. These benefits not only ring true in the home, but also extend to the classroom.
Melissa Stark is a teacher in New York City. She teaches in a 6:1:1 class for students with autism. Last school year, one of her students really wanted a guinea pig, so when an opportunity arose for her to receive one, she decided to welcome it into her classroom:
“From day 1, my students were in love with Chewie,” said Stark. “We wrote class rules of how to handle Chewie and how they were in charge of taking care of her. They fed her each and every day. The students love talking to her. She brought out so much language in them. Several of our students would ask to see the ‘skinny pig.’ A lot of our students had never had a pet before and were very scared. We worked on desensitizing them to holding Chewie. ”
This school year, Mrs. Stark decided Chewie needed a friend. Through the Pets in the Classroom grant, Ms. Stark received funding to purchase another guinea pig. And the students received a wonderful, hands-on learning experience in the process:
“On a Monday afternoon, as part of group speech, we took a walk to the Petco near our school. The students googled how to get there and practiced safety skills. They did a great job working together to pick which guinea pig they wanted. They were so excited to pick our new friend! When we got back to school, the students did a poll to choose the name. We chose Lucy. The students love her! Chewie and Lucy are the best of friends! My students love hearing them talk to each other. Our pet helper each day makes sure they both have enough food and drinks. When I take them home for the weekend, and they are unable to come back on Monday, the students always put them both as absent. Chewie and Lucy are a part of our class.”
The experience in itself provided growth for her students, but Mrs. Stark sees the value that her guinea pigs provide to her students beyond that:
“I feel having our pets in our classroom has helped increase my students social and communication skills. When the students are having a hard time, they sit and talk to Chewie and Lucy and tell them their problems. Our two guinea pigs have taught my students the importance of taking care of someone else, it has increased their communication skills, as well as increased their social emotional development.”
Mrs. Stark’s experience coincides with what recent studies are saying: having small animals in the classroom can significantly increase positive social behaviors among children with autism.
If you would like to learn more about the Pets in the Classroom grant, please visit our website, www.petsintheclassroom.org. Or if you would like to share your story on how your students with autism were affected by classroom pets, please comment or message us on our Facebook page!