A new breed of therapist is helping special-needs students at Sierra Academy of Scottsdale master socialization skills and other classrooms lessons. The therapists – three of them, in fact – are dutiful, enthusiastic and, best of all, work for affection and a few tasty treats.
Three therapy dogs and their owners make much-anticipated weekly visits to Sierra Academy of Scottsdale to “teach students sensitivity, self-control, compassion and the importance of treating others – pets as well as people – with respect,” said academy director Debra Watland.
“Our students have learning, emotional and behavioral challenges – and some are on the Autism spectrum – so these are not concepts that they easily grasp,” Watland said. “Introducing the therapy dogs into our classrooms this year has been very beneficial for our students.”
The therapy teams began to visit Sierra Academy in September through a school partnership with Phoenix-based Gabriel’s Angels Inc., which provides pet therapy to 13,000 abused, neglected and at-risk children throughout Arizona, said organization CEO Pam Gaber.
A Golden Retriever named “Cooper” and his owner Barbara Hall visit first-to-third-graders at Sierra Academy; “Teddy,” a Cockapoo, and owner Sharon Woodward visit middle school students; and a yellow Lab named Rubicon and handler Liz Rosen visit high school students.
Second-grader Sahara Daley, 8, said she has learned about canine anatomy and the importance of good grooming and proper feeding, but she said Cooper also helps her settle down with a good book in class.
“I sit on the floor with Cooper, hug him, and he listens while I read. I don’t think he understands, but he always listens,” said Sahara. “When Cooper gets tired or bored he rolls over on his back.”
“Social skills are built into our regular daily curriculum, but these therapy dog teams are a wonderful supplementary teaching tool,” said Watland. “Students are more receptive and comfortable with these concepts because of these dogs.”
Cooper has motivated younger students to read about dogs and other animals, to write short essays about pets, and to make dog puppets and pet scrapbooks. Rubicon helped older students learn about canine physiology with a variety of classroom projects like comparing his heart rate to their own.
“A lesson about healthy pet treats, for example, opens up a classroom discussion about the value of good nutrition for students,” said Watland. “Our students are more engaged in the lesson simply because one of these terrific dogs is involved.”
“A hallmark of Sierra Academy – and of our 48 other schools nationwide – is that they go the extra mile to use innovative approaches to educate students with special-needs and return them to mainstream classrooms,” said Michael Kaufman, president and CEO of Specialized Education Services Inc. (SESI), which operates Sierra Academy. “This is a marvelous example of what we do.”
Nine unified public schools in Phoenix area – including Scottsdale, Peoria, Chandler, Mesa, Higley, Paradise Valley, Cave Creek, Payson and Deer Valley – now refer special-needs students in grades 1-11 to Sierra Academy which offers an intensive, academic curriculum that is custom-tailored for each student.
More information about Sierra School of Scottsdale and Specialized Education Services Inc. is available at: www.sesi-schools.com.
Specialized Education Services, Inc. (SESI), based in Yardley, Pa., is one of the nation’s premier providers of specialized education for children with learning, language, behavioral and social challenges. It operates 49 schools in 12 states and the District of Columbia