How animal-assisted therapy helps students cope with anxiety

Editor's note: This is the latest in Suburban Education Lab, an occasional series focusing on inno­vative programs at suburban schools, colleges and universities tackling common, universal prob­lems students face using unique methods.

Educators may employ many tactics to correct behavioral issues among students. From proverbial and literal smacks on the wrists to modern-day detentions and suspensions, none works all too well, experts say.

One suburban school district is taking a unique approach: animal-assisted therapy.

McHenry High School District 156 this year, in partnership with Main Stay Therapeutic Farm in Richmond, launched the pilot experiential learning program for at-risk students that's an alternative to detentions and suspensions.

"It's something different," said Becky Covalt, district director of special education. "We are trying to reduce disciplinary issues that would normally involve suspensions. We really want it to be more of an intervention rather than a consequence. The hardest part is getting kids to commit. If we get them there for that first (visit), it's never a problem trying to get them to come back."

District 156 has been partnering with Main Stay for three years, allowing select students, including special education classrooms, to participate in animal-assisted activities and therapy and do community service there. The experiential learning program is funded by a nearly $11,000 grant from the McHenry County Community Foundation and allows all students a chance to experience animal-assisted therapy.

Program officials are trying to quantify the effects of the therapy and hope to expand the program to other school districts.

"This is such a need nationally," said Carla Kaizen, animal assisted learning manager. "Our hope is we really want other school districts to hear about it. It benefits communities because those kids then do stay out of trouble and graduate."

Students often are dealing with behavioral challenges or unresolved traumas in their lives beyond their emotional capacity to handle, officials said.

One student, Evelyn Sanchez, 16, an 11th-grader at the McHenry High School West campus, said the program has helped her deal with anxiety. Giving presentations before classmates and being around lots of people exacerbates that anxiety, she said.

"I can't control it. I didn't know how to. I just would have breakdowns, panic attacks. I couldn't cope. I would feel nauseous, dizzy," she said.

Through the program, students are taught free association and how to groom and care for animals, such as goats, sheep, miniature horses and rabbits, while learning positive coping skills for confronting conflict in their own lives. Most of the 10 animals on the farm have been rescued.

One exercise requires students to pick words that describe themselves, their animals and their peers, emphasizing positive character traits they also are taught in school.

Evelyn's favorite is Blondie, a miniature horse with whom she feels a special connection. During a recent visit, Evelyn said she was feeling more stressed than usual in anticipation of a speech she had to give before a group of her peers. Just being with Blondie helped calm her nerves.

"I feel at peace, like I can actually relax ... like I can breathe," she said. "I don't want to be overwhelmed anymore."

For some students, being around the animals is a lot easier than interacting with people at school.

"I just don't like talking to people as much," said Maggie Drost, 15, a McHenry West ninth-grader. "Sometimes I shut down when something triggers me."

Maggie said people always rush her, but animals don't. If they need a break, animals communicate that by simply walking away - a tactic Maggie hopes to learn herself.

Her favorites on the farm are Toto the donkey and Thomas the sheep. With the latter, she shares the experience of having come from an abusive home. "I suffered a lot in foster care," Maggie said.

Learning to read the animals' body language helps students develop a sense of self-awareness about how others might read and react to their own actions and expressions. Just being around the animals helps elevate students' moods.

"You are interacting with another living being," said Jean Maraist, Main Stay program director. "They give immediate, authentic and objective feedback about your behavior. They don't fake it, and you don't get that with a person always."

Students learn to match the animals' energy levels, becoming less agitated, moving at a slower pace and speaking more softly.

"For kids that have pets, they use the animals as a coping strategy at home," said Ashley Burger, a district social worker.

Petting, grooming, feeding and walking the animals helps some students with anger management.

"It helps to come here ... focus on something else other than what I'm stressing out about," said Anna White, 15, a 10th-grader at the West campus. "It was just kind of like a weight was lifted up."

  At the beginning of her session at Main Stay Therapeutic Farm, McHenry High School student Evelyn Sanchez tells counselors of her stress over events at school. She is participating in a new program teaching students positive coping skills through working with farm animals. John Starks/
  One of the exercises at Main Stay Therapeutic Farm in Richmond is to have students pick a word they think describes themselves and the animals they are working with that day. John Starks/
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