A dog could be a child’s best friend

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Researchers have established a link between health and education indicating that students who may have mental and physical health concerns are at risk for poorer school performances. Once the mental, physical and social-emotional needs are met, students are better able to focus on their academic needs and school performance. In the K-12 setting, the school counselor and school nurse collaborate to ensure the social and emotional needs of students are being met. Both professionals pool their expertise to provide students tools to cope not just with academics but also with  underlying social and psychological stress that could hinder their progress.

According to Dr. Morgan Yordy, assistant professor in the Auburn University School of Nursing (AUSON), due to the increase in childhood trauma and other factors impacting students in K-12 school settings, a collaborative intervention through an integrated care approach may be needed to address the students’ academic, physical and social-emotional health.

An innovative community outreach project among AUSON’s Yordy, Associate Professor Dr. Malti Tuttle and Associate Professor Dr. Jill Meyer from the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation and Counseling within the College of Education explores alternative methods to enhance communication and collaboration between school counselors and school nurses in the K-12 setting. The project proposes to use canines as the vehicle to enhance the relationship between nurses and counselors and, in turn, improve health outcomes for the students served. This project builds on a previous collaboration model developed and published by faculty, as well as pilot data regarding school nurse and counselor perceived benefits and/or hazards associated with animal-assisted therapy (AAT), specifically canine therapy, in the school system.

Tuttle, a school counselor by training, believes that school nursing and school counseling are both part of the helping profession, which lends itself to a vital platform for collaborating to best serve all students.

AAT has gained a lot of popularity lately as a therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals into the treatment plan for individuals or groups. It has been used to enhance and complement the benefits of traditional therapy. Researchers believe the potential social benefits of AAT in the classroom strengthens the classroom environment, while allowing students to experience the physiological and psychological benefits of animal-assisted interaction (AAI). Animals in counseling sessions and the classroom have been known to facilitate an atmosphere of trust, nurturance and relationship building.

The therapy animal is a nonjudgmental companion in the process of learning and development. In physiological well-being, animal-human interaction demonstrates positive results, with an increase in oxytocin levels and decreases in cortisol levels and blood pressure.

Yordy admits that although AAT has gained popularity within K-12 schools for the emotional-social support, academic support and sense of belonging animals provide, concerns still arise despite documented potential benefits.

“This exploratory, cross-sectional, quantitative study examined the knowledge, attitudes and experiences of school counselors and school nurses with AAT to determine potential risks and benefits of AAT in schools, as very little empirical information exists in this area of research,” Yordy said.

This study was based on a survey from a previous study by Yordy and associates. The survey, sent to school nurses and counselors nationwide, explored their perceptions of the potential benefits and concerns associated with establishing AAT programs in K-12 school settings. Results indicated canine ownership, roles within schools and region affected participants’ responses. It also revealed that school counselors and individuals who previously owned that canine were more likely to endorse the positive impact of AAT than school nurses and individuals who had never owned a canine.

“Additionally, we found that the survey seemed to suggest the region of the United States in which school nurses and school counselors were employed impacted their endorsement of AAT, with professionals in the western United States being more likely to report a lower positive impact and a higher negative towards AAT. These results were thoroughly examined, and it was determined that those who reside in the West also reported less experience with AAT in school systems.

“We took information from the survey recognizing the importance of the school nurse and school counselor collaborating for trauma and developed a continuing education program to enhance collaboration and integrate animals in schools,” Yordy said.

“I think canine ownership and region were important findings. Counselors endorsed the utilization of canines in school more so than the school nurse. They were more open. I think that realization made our research team regroup to see how we can get these two disciplines talking.

“As school counselors and school nurses continue to integrate AAT programs into their K-12 school settings, additional professional development opportunities must be established to address best practices and considerations when using AAI and ensure the welfare of students and the therapy dog. Future research and advocacy efforts within the fields of school counseling and school nursing may possibly seek to focus on establishing guidelines, policies and professional development trainings for the ethical implementation of AAT in K-12 school settings,” Yordy added.

According to Dr. Pao-Feng Tsai, associate dean for research at AUSON, Yordy’s research study is innovative and considers the unique contribution of ownership, location and roles on AAI and operating an effective AAT in schools. “This study has important practical and research implications and has the potential to attract major research or outreach funding,” Tsai said.

While the role of animals in humans’ lives continues to evolve, one aspect remains the same — animals have a natural ability to provide humans with a sense of comfort and support. With the increase in canine intervention in medical and therapeutic settings, researchers have gained a deeper understanding of the potential benefits of human-animal interactions, such as mood elevation and decreased levels of depression, anxiety and pain.

The vision of the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) demonstrates the important role of the school nurse to affect the academic, health and emotional outcomes of children and adolescents served with the goal being “all students will be healthy, safe and ready to learn.” The NASN (2018) Framework for 21st Century School Nursing Practice emphasizes the need for evidence-based practice to support student health and academic success within the school environment. One promising program involves AAT in the school systems; however, limited research exists regarding AAT from the school nurse perspective.

“I believe the potential impact of the program is not only significant for AUSON, but the collaborative relationship between the K-12 school settings and future community outreach is just as essential,” said Dr. Gregg Newschwander, dean of the School of Nursing.

In that regard, one local school official seems to agree. “I wanted to share with you how much I learned from the program, Recognizing Trauma: Training for School Nurses and Counselors,” said Brenda Lindahl, the Auburn City Schools (ACS) nurse administrator, after ACS used the Module of Facility Service Dogs for their professional development day. “Our participants were deeply moved by the program and want to consider presenting trauma training at the Alabama Association of School Nurses’ Annual Conference next year. Who knows? We may have a school with an AAT program in the near future!”