Wellbeing Hub: Exemplification of Effective Practice

St Gerard’s School and Support Services

The following information and resources, including photos and videos, are from St Gerard’s School and Support Services, Belfast, and detail how Animal Assisted Play Therapy supports the social and emotional needs of their pupils through their Autism Assistance Dog, Echo.

Watch these videos to see how interacting with Echo benefits the children in different areas of development:

Animal Assisted Play Therapy

In 2019, St Gerard’s was the first school in Northern Ireland to recruit a fully qualified Autism Assistance dog. Echo the black Labrador is employed by the school and works closely with individual pupils and groups of pupils in Animal Assisted Play Therapy (AAPT) sessions to support their social and emotional needs.

Find out more about how and why Echo is employed in the school, and his impact on the emotional regulation, resilience, and cognitive development of pupils.

Introduction and School Context

St Gerard’s School and Support Services is a Catholic co-educational Special Educational Needs (SEN) setting, located in West Belfast. The school consists of a Junior, Middle, Senior and Rainbow department and it caters for pupils aged three and nineteen. Pupils are referred for placement in St Gerard’s by the Education Authority and all pupils have a Statement of SEN. The school caters for pupils with a wide range of Special Educational Needs.

St Gerard’s provides small class settings with good adult: pupil ratios. Teaching and learning assistant support staff are highly skilled and experienced. Staff regularly have opportunities to engage in a range of in-house and external training opportunities to further develop and enhance their skillsets to support each individual pupil and their varying Special Educational Needs. St Gerard’s pupils have access to in-house support from Allied Health Professionals, including Speech and Language Therapists and Occupational Therapists. Allied Health Professionals are a vital part of the multidisciplinary team, working closely with education staff, external agencies, and parents/carers to help pupils to work towards their individual targets and reach their potential. St Gerard’s also has links with a range of other outside agencies which work together to support pupils, including LX Gymnastics, Jump Jiggle and Jive, Barnardo’s, and Middletown Centre for Autism, to name a few.

St Gerard’s mission statement is ‘Achieve, Believe, Celebrate.’ This statement encompasses everything that staff do to support pupils to reach their full potential: spiritually, physically, emotionally, academically, and socially.

Animal Assisted Play Therapy: The Rationale

In 2019, St Gerard’s was the first school in Northern Ireland to recruit a fully qualified Autism Assistance dog, trained by Assistant Dogs Northern Ireland (ADNI). Echo the black Labrador was placed with Ms Steele, a Junior School class teacher. Echo attends school five days per week. He officially works three days a week and rests the other two. During his two rest days, Echo meets and greets visitors at the reception area. The other three days he is directly involved in working closely with the children and young people. Through Animal Assisted Play Therapy (AAPT), his role is to support pupils with social and emotional needs, enhancing their emotional regulation and resilience, as well as assisting their cognitive development.

Examples of SEN School Wellbeing Practice: Harberton Special School - Echo the dog

One of the eight principles underpinning CCEA’s guidance for developing a whole-child, whole-school, whole-community approach to Emotional Health and Wellbeing (EHWB) is ‘Curriculum Provision and Teaching and Learning’. It is through this principle that the emotional health and wellbeing of all pupils is promoted and supported. By employing Echo, we are taking a child-centred approach to target pupils' social and emotional needs.

Following the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown, the school implemented the Recovery Curriculum, employing Echo to support the pupils who may need his help most. During this time, staff conducted a case study with seventeen pupils to explore the effectiveness of AAPT as a proactive intervention to support pupils who had emotional regulation difficulties. The seventeen pupils identified for the intervention were assessed using the GL assessment tool ‘PASS’ which is a measurement tool to assess pupils’ social and emotional wellbeing. Scores from PASS helped to identify pupils in need of further pastoral support. Teacher interviews, parent/guardian questionnaires and ongoing pupil evaluations of the process were also conducted to gain a holistic picture of pupils’ strengths and areas for development.

This exemplification describes the process of developing a working relationship with Echo and the impact the planned intervention has had on the four pupils selected for this project. (Echo is currently working with seven pupils).

The planned intervention took place over six weeks and was designed around the specific needs of each child. Pupils were identified to receive regular scheduled one-to-one or small-group sessions with Echo through a referral process. All pupils received Echo's Introductory Letter before beginning sessions with him. This familiarised them with Echo’s appearance, his likes and dislikes, and his favourite things.

Echo was timetabled to work directly with pupils over three days. Each timetabled session was approximately twenty minutes.

Both directive and non-directive approaches were employed, meaning that there was an element of flexibility throughout the sessions. Pupil rewards charts (Chances Rewards Chart and Sticker Rewards Chart) were used during the sessions, providing positive feedback and motivation for the pupils. The aim of the intervention was to encourage self-exploration, self-acceptance, and self-confidence in a playful way, in an emotionally and physically safe space.

Animal Assisted Play Therapy: The Process of Development

For Animal Assisted Play Therapy to be included in a school setting, staff have to be properly trained. Ms Steele, whom Echo is placed with, completed an accredited Animal Assisted Play Therapy Course Level 1 provided by ADNI. The training involved learning about:

  • reading canine body language and picking up cues;
  • risk assessment;
  • modelling activities which pupils and Echo could do together;
  • appropriate interaction with and use of the therapy animal; and
  • considering the rights of both the children and the animal.

Ms Steele then trained all teachers and classroom assistants who would be working with Echo.

She is currently preparing for Level 2 and completing an accredited Play Therapy Course to maximise the benefit for all pupils of well-planned and theory-informed AAPT sessions.

Before Echo’s arrival at school, all stakeholders were informed and involved. Consent was obtained from parents/guardians for pupils to engage in animal-assisted play sessions.

Animal Assisted Play Therapy: The Positive Impact for Pupils

Some of the positive results noted from both observations of the four pupils and teacher/pupil feedback include:

  • improvement in response to curricular demands;
  • improvement in self-confidence as a learner;
  • improvement in communication skills;
  • more willingness to take on challenges;
  • higher levels of motivation;
  • increased feelings of positive emotions;
  • participating in open discussions about emotionally difficult topics/issues – pupils shared thoughts with Echo they would not discuss directly with peers or adults, which helped them to open up more generally;
  • taking on leadership roles such as showing peers how to interact with Echo appropriately;
  • developing independence skills such as filling Echo’s water bowl when empty;
  • developing new skills such as dog handling, reading canine body language, developing new social skills with new adults; and
  • a more positive attitude towards supporting adults and school in general.

The school highly values the importance of pupil voice throughout this process. The evaluation forms completed at every session are child friendly, and age- and need-appropriate. For example, pupils are asked to rank their emotional state using a traffic light system before a session with Echo, and then again after a session with Echo. Non-written methods of evaluation are also used, such as drawing and having conversations. It has been noted that improvements in emotional wellbeing, confidence, self-esteem are regular themes which arise from attending sessions with Echo.

Watch the video footage of Echo interacting with pupils in AAPT sessions: note the benefits and how pupils respond.

Animal Assisted Play Therapy: Next Steps

There was a wide range of benefits noted for the four pupils described, and for other pupils Echo has worked with. For example, following the six-week intervention, the PASS scores for the Year 8 pupil in Video 3 improved, and with further intervention of non-directive Animal Assisted Play Therapy over time, we hope to see further improvement.

This has informed the rationale for further work with Echo into the future. Pupils are continuing to be referred, assessed through PASS for their suitability for working with Echo and timetabled for non-directive, child-led play sessions. Each child is allocated a number of sessions based on identified need and evaluations of engagement with sessions.