When Pets Go To School

It is somewhat common to see pets in a preschool classroom although the incidence of such is diminishing with pressures rooted in liability and the emergence of corporate childcare centers. It’s far less likely to see pets in an elementary, middle, or high school classroom. This is unfortunate, as it is an opportunity missed. The American Humane Association (AHA), following an extensive study, “Pets In the Classroom, July 2015, which includes interviews and surveys of teachers, suggests that “the use of pets in classrooms may benefit children in social, behavioral, and/or academic realms.” 

According to the AHA, teachers view both the uses and benefits of classroom pets as primarily centering around six objectives. These include teaching children responsibility and leadership and compassion and empathy. Children who have pets in their classroom develop respect for all living things. Also, pets in school enhance and enrich a variety of traditional and non-traditional academic lessons, from science to language arts. Pets provide a gateway to relaxation when children are stressed or when their behavior is unstable and/or challenging to manage. Pets often help students feel comfortable and engaged in the classroom and with their peers, making the school environment more conducive to quality learning, growth, and social connections. Pets at school expose students to new experiences and opportunities, particularly for those who do not have pets of their own. This often translates to a decrease in unfounded fears and mitigates cultural biases children may possess. 

Sure, there are challenges to welcoming classroom pets; this is not for everyone. Some teachers are faced with out-of-pocket expenses to care for the pet. In addition, they must be willing and able to assume the responsibility of pet care and accommodations if all other plans fall through. Teachers must ensure safe, productive, and educational interactions between the students and the pet(s) and, sooner or later, address, cope with and help students process the death of a pet. 

At Voyagers’ Community School, and in similar schools and classrooms around the country, pets are integral to the everyday goings-on.  Guinea pigs, fish, iguanas, pairs of rabbits, geckos, and even dogs are often welcomed. A school that is mindfully and carefully managing these beloved pets has lots of discussions with students, parents, faculty, staff and visiting guests. Often, the teacher, with the aid of the students, establish classroom pet monitors, compose charts and agreements that outline the proper care of the pet, establish rules for holding or interacting with the pet, and devise directives and detailed plans for the loving care of the pet during after school hours. 

From its inception, Voyagers’ students have requested pets. Our first attempt was a rabbit who perished early due to an illness contracted prior to our adoption. From this arose a discussion about cultural traditions around death and the care of the body and spirit of once-living things. Losing a pet stirred our sense of caution but several years later we adopted turtles. To this day, two turtles, Raphael and Donatello bask in their oversized tank and react with interest to any person who approaches. Following this, and for years, we have welcomed trout eggs which hatch and grow through the school year and are released in May. No one will forget the day a preschooler overfed the trout without notice. Again we discussed thoughtful care for living things, death, respect, and our community’s traditions. The children established our pet cemetery. Included in our current menagerie are goldfish, a gecko, turtles, and our beloved Shih Tzu, Socks, who was selected by the students from a litter of three and has, for eight years, roamed our halls and played ball in our yard sporting her therapy vest. To be honest, we have turned down many potential pets including snakes, rodents, birds, and rabbits. When welcoming pets, it is important to know your limits.

For those educators who want to introduce pets but are not ready to commit to their full-time care, there are alternate ways to introduce students to pets. Consider joint custody between 2 or more classes, pets on loan from local pet shops (some requiring a small deposit), hatchlings such as chicks or pheasants, who, after about a week are placed on a farm, or visiting therapy dogs. If you are sold on the idea, explore grants to support your classroom pet. Visit petsintheclassroom.org to learn more.

Published by Peter Swain