Recently, educators have been finding that one factor in the classroom has had tremendous success in reducing bullying, encouraging engagement and even teaching kids about empathy. That magic ingredient isn't fancy software or boatloads of funding, but ... pets.
Here's how it works. Over 900 schools across the country have implemented a program called Mutt-i-grees, which was co-created by our partner shelter, The North Shore Animal League America (NSALA). This program aims to work with children's love for animals to teach about the great pets waiting for homes at shelters. While the kids learn about shelter cats and dogs, they also learn about themselves - in ways you might not guess.
One of the common lessons of the Mutt-i-grees program is teaching kids the difference between empathy and sympathy, which can be complicated for them to understand. As teachers show the kids how to recognize a dog's emotions and feelings, the kids are also becoming attuned to their own feelings, which can help them develop the skills they need to communicate their own. In some cases, the program has helped children with autism make strides in connecting to their teachers and making friends.
Kids have a hard time understanding why bullies act the way they do, but the Mutt-i-gree program helps them view behavior through a dog's motivations. They might learn that dogs who are defensive may act that way because their life may have forced them to be protective of themselves and put their guard up. Seeing the parallel between dogs and playground bullies has not only reduced bullying, but made kids sensitive to the fact that their peers might have problems of their own.
Some schools actually incorporate animals into the classroom, while others simply use a puppet or storybooks to teach their lesson. According to studies, even thinking about dogs can help children focus and improve their moods.
To create the Mutt-i-gree program, NSALA partnered with experts in the animal welfare and educational worlds: The Millan Foundation and Yale University's School of the 21st Century, a program that helps schools translate educational research literature into practice. Together, they developed a program that's helped schools reach kids of all backgrounds, giving teachers hope of making a difference, even in a time of recession.
To learn more about the Mutt-i-gree program, check out their website.