Christine Holton is a PreK / Kindergarten Exceptional Student Education Teacher at Dream Lake Elementary School in Orange County, Florida. On a daily basis, Holton teachers 9 children ages 3-7 who have intellectual disabilities as well as some with physical impairments. With two in wheel chairs, only 2 that speak with words, some with significant health issues, and two who have very serious visual impairments, Holton’s students need assistance with all aspects of daily living. But when Holton introduced fish into the classroom thanks to the Pets in the Classroom grant program, the classroom dynamic changed.
“The most significant change since the fish arrived would be the calming influence they seem to have on my more excitable children,” stated Holton. “One little one will spin all over the classroom until he makes his way to the fish tank where he almost always stops and watches the fish. This break in the behavior pattern is almost like a rest button. After a few seconds of watching the fish swim he is much more in control of himself and is better able to focus.”
The fish have made an impact on other ways as well, Holton explained: “A little boy in a wheelchair has terrible separation anxiety. He cries whenever anyone he likes leaves the classroom. We solved this problem by allowing him to lead the visitor to the fish tank to say ‘good bye’ to Goldie and Bubbles. Once everyone has said bye-bye to the fish, the visitor can leave with minimal distress to the little boy (who actually can’t speak). The fish help break the established pattern of crying when someone leaves.”
The impact that these fish have had on the students in this classroom is remarkable. And Holton will be the first to tell you that having these small animals has changed her classroom for the better:
“I think the most wonderful thing about class pets for special needs children is that the pets are completely non-judgmental. It doesn’t matter to them if the children can read or speak or walk. They also give the kids a sense of being needed. They know the fish are dependent on us to take care of them. It’s usually the other way around. My students needs so much from so many people, it’s empowering to them to feel that something depends on them for a change.”
To learn more about having pets in the classroom or to apply for a grant to help with funding for a classroom pet, visit www.PetsintheClassroom.org.