How School Dogs Can Make a Huge Difference for Neurodivergent Children
Neurodivergent children often face a range of unique challenges in school settings that can impact their learning experiences, social interactions, and overall well-being. Neurodiversity refers to the idea that neurological differences, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other conditions, are natural variations of the human brain and should be recognised and respected as such. Here are some of the challenges neurodivergent children may experience in school settings and the helpful ways a school dog can help…
Many neurodivergent children have heightened sensory sensitivities, which can make a typical classroom environment overwhelming. Bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, and even certain textures can trigger discomfort and stress, making it difficult for these children to concentrate and engage in learning activities. The presence of a dog can lead to an increase in the production of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and happiness.
Neurodivergent children, such as those with autism, may struggle with verbal and nonverbal communication. They might have difficulty expressing themselves, understanding social cues, and engaging in conversations. This can lead to misunderstandings, social isolation, and frustration. Some students, particularly those who struggle with verbal communication, may find it easier to initiate conversations and express themselves when interacting with a dog.
Executive Functioning Challenges:
Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive skills that help individuals plan, organise, manage time, switch focus, and complete tasks. Many neurodivergent children, including those with ADHD, can experience difficulties with executive functioning, which may affect their ability to follow instructions, stay organised, and complete assignments. A dog can contribute to improved mood and overall well-being for all students and staff, who may then be able to better support a student in their executive functioning challenges.
Neurodivergent children may find social interactions challenging due to difficulties in understanding social norms, reading facial expressions, and interpreting body language. This can lead to feelings of isolation and exclusion from peer groups. School dogs can serve as social catalysts, helping to facilitate interactions among students who may otherwise struggle with socialising. Interacting with a friendly dog can help reduce stress levels and alleviate feelings of anxiety in order to encourage calm ways of interacting with others.
Neurodivergent children often have diverse learning styles and strengths, but traditional teaching methods might not cater to their specific needs. For example, children with dyslexia may struggle with reading and spelling, while those with ADHD might have difficulty focusing for extended periods. Incorporating a school dog into lessons or activities can make learning more engaging and accessible for all students. The novelty and positive associations with the dog can motivate students to participate more actively. Reading to a non-judgmental dog can boost students' confidence in their reading abilities. The absence of criticism or correction can create a safe space for struggling readers to practice and improve.
Some neurodivergent children may experience difficulties in regulating their emotions. This can manifest as meltdowns, shutdowns, or periods of intense anxiety. These emotional challenges can disrupt the learning environment and require understanding and support from educators. Spending time with a school dog can create a calming and comforting atmosphere.
Stigma and Misunderstanding:
Unfortunately, neurodivergent children can face stigmatisation and misunderstanding from both peers and educators who may not be familiar with their unique needs. This can lead to feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and a reluctance to ask for help. Caring for a school dog can instil a sense of responsibility and confidence in students. They learn about the needs of animals and develop important life skills and respecting boundaries may help them advocate for their own needs.
Changes in routines and environments can be particularly challenging for neurodivergent children. Transitions between classes, activities, or school years can cause anxiety and stress, affecting their overall well-being. School dogs provide unconditional love and companionship, which can be especially valuable for students who are dealing with stress, anxiety, or other emotional challenges through change.
Bullying and Peer Relationships:
Neurodivergent children can be targets of bullying due to their differences. Their struggles with social interactions and communication may make them more vulnerable to peer exclusion and negative experiences. Students might feel more comfortable/confident approaching their peers and engaging in conversations when a dog is present. The presence of a school dog can contribute to a positive and welcoming school environment. It can foster a sense of community and create a shared experience that students and staff can bond over.
Neurodivergent students, such as those with autism, may find comfort and security in the presence of a dog. The dog's predictable behaviour and nonverbal communication can provide a sense of stability. Plus there are also many universal benefits to school dogs, too:
Taking short breaks to spend time with a school dog can provide moments of relaxation and mental rejuvenation. This can be especially helpful during intense study periods.
Interacting with a school dog often involves physical activity, such as playing fetch or taking short walks. This encourages movement and can contribute to a healthier lifestyle.
The opportunity to spend time with the school dog can serve as a positive incentive for good behaviour and completion of tasks, promoting positive conduct in students.
School dogs can have therapeutic effects, aiding in reducing blood pressure, lowering heart rate, and contributing to an overall sense of relaxation.
Creating an inclusive and supportive environment that embraces neurodiversity is crucial for ensuring that neurodivergent children can thrive in school. This involves implementing strategies such as sensory-friendly classrooms, individualised learning plans, social skills training, and promoting empathy and understanding among peers.
It's important to note that the introduction of a school dog should be carefully planned and considered, taking into account factors such as allergies, student comfort levels, and the dog's temperament and training. Proper training and supervision of the dog are essential to ensure a safe and beneficial experience for everyone involved.
Why we love ‘Dexter! The AMAZING School Dog!’ – It’s a celebration of diversity - a school dog can represent diversity and inclusion, as it provides a point of connection that transcends backgrounds, abilities, and differences.
This new, neuroaffirming book is available to buy below.
Available from all good bookshops, and online from:
'Dexter! The AMAZING School Dog!'
Written by Lucy Plunkett
Illustrated by Sian Bowman
Published by Owlet Press
Publication date: 5th October 2023
"A warm tale with stunning illustrations. I wish there had been a dog like Dexter at my school. So charming." - Elle McNicoll, multi-award winning author of 'A Kind of Spark'
"A beautiful book that helps discuss neurodiversity - sometimes all we need is a little understanding and a helping paw." - Louise Gooding, author of 'Wonderfully Wired Brains: An Introduction to the World of Neurodiversity'