What happens when a teacher utilizes a small animal in the classroom? According to Barbara J. Radcliffe, wonderful things.

Guinea PigIn her article, “Literacy Lessons in One Language Arts Sixth-Grade Classroom: The Year of the Guinea Pigs,” which was published in the March 2015 Middle School Journal, Radcliffe reflects on the positive impact her guinea pigs made on her students academically, socially, and emotionally.

The article is based on the premise that “All humans desire a sense of belonging; this craving is achieved through positive, persistent, caring relationships.” With this in mind, Radcliffe gives examples of how her students’ interaction with the classroom guinea pigs impacted their social and emotional development as well as their sense of belonging.

One example tells of a student, Cedric, who had multiple issues stemming from his home life and was repeating the sixth grade for the third time.  When Cedric would express his need for time alone or that he was having a bad day, Radcliffe would suggest that one of the guinea pigs needed time alone too.  Cedric would then take his “study buddy” to a quiet place to do his school work.  Radcliffe concluded the story by stating, “Cedric submitted some of his best work on the days he took Gucci to ‘their space,’ and he attended school more regularly, citing that he had to make sure Gucci was okay.”

Radcliffe also discusses how the guinea pigs would help calm an angry student, give comfort to a student who was picked on, and provide other students with a feeling of ownership and responsibility: “The students took great pride and joy in caring for the guinea pigs, and in return, the guinea pigs gave the students the unconditional attention and affection that others in their lives could not always provide.”

The love the students felt for the pet became most obvious to Radcliffe when one of the guinea pigs, Angel, became sick.  After being rushed to the vet, the guinea pig died.  Students came together and planned a funeral for their beloved pet. According to Radcliffe: “This group of sixth graders created a safe and inviting environment, one in which it was okay to grieve. Tears and hugs overflowed as students expressed their genuine love for Angel and their empathy and compassion for one another.”

The examples of social and emotional growth that occur because of the classroom guinea pigs show the impact that daily interaction with a small animal can have on the life of a student.  And Radcliffe’s experience is not unusual.  A study released by the American Humane Association that survey 1200 teachers also concluded that classroom pets have real educational, leadership and character-building value. From teaching responsibility and leadership via animal care, to teaching children compassion, empathy and respect for living things, to providing an avenue for relaxation when children are stressed or when their behavior is unstable and/or challenging to manage, to helping students feel comfortable and engaged in the classroom and with their peers, classroom pets are helping students in numerous ways.

In today’s blog post, we discussed some of the social and emotional benefits of classroom pets. These benefits by themselves show the value of having classroom pets, but Radcliffe’s article also outlines the academic value that her guinea pigs provided.  As she states in the article, “their impact grew beyond assisting with the social and emotional development as their inclusion provided rich lessons incorporating literacy and life.”

Stay tuned as we will discuss the other “rich lessons” learned in our next blog post.

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