Many of the keynote speakers spoke about the benefits of forging strong relationships for children but there are other relationships that can enrich a child’s environment and childhood – like the one you have with your pets!
Bern Nicholls, PhD, presented her Masters research findings on the effect of Gus the dog’s presence in the secondary school classroom environment. As a high school teacher for many years, Bern took her Masters research as an opportunity to introduce Gus to her class and to study how Gus affected the classroom environment.
In the classroom, Gus would sit under tables, put his head on students’ shoes, sit next to particular students and, for the most part of the day, sleep. His presence was definitely felt, with students reporting that they felt:
- More relaxed,
- More trusting of the classroom environment,
- A stronger connection to the class and other students,
- More understanding and empathetic of other students,
- It was easier to concentrate in class, and
- Safer in the classroom.
Most noticeably, Gus gave students more confidence to speak up in class. Many students who were often shy or afraid would speak more freely if Gus was sitting at their feet.
So, what’s the explanation?
There’s a connection to the evolutionary history of people and dogs: they evolved with us, became our protectors and then a part of our families. Gus became this sort of canary in the classroom, wherein he had a calming effect on all the kids, and with a calmer mind, there’s more room for learning.
Bern’s research can be used to think about how teachers work with and form relationships with their students.
Bern highlighted three areas in her research where teachers could change their practice to form stronger relationships and improve their students’ learning environment:
Trust and care: acknowledging the courage it takes to teach and then acknowledging that students want teachers to care about them to build relationships with them, just as Gus did,
Relationships: understanding that children want meaningful and respectful teaching and, in turn, working to build this relationship, and
Educating with the brain in mind: remembering that stressed brains don’t learn and trying to create a relaxed environment in the classroom.
For more information on Bern’s work, see her company Learning Labyrinth.
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