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Small dogs removing big learning barriers for kids

He may be small, but support dog Teddy is a huge source of comfort for Wellington schoolchildren.

The nine-year-old blond spoodle is one of three dogs that teacher Elizabeth McKee takes into primary schools across Upper Hutt and Porirua, as part of the charity Ted’s Space.

Along with Daisy and Willow (who also lend a paw), Teddy’s presence, a quiet cuddle, or the feeling of soft fur can be the difference between a student feeling calm, collected, and able to learn - or feeling anxious and unsettled.

“Many of the students we work with are neuro-diverse, but many are also neuro-typical, and we’ve found that Teddy can work with any child, in any space,” Elizabeth says. “That neurodiversity can include autism spectrum disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Auditory Processing Disorder - we're looking at students who have very high sensory needs as well.

“Teddy’s job is about teaching skills like resilience, empathy, compassion, courage and consent.”

Elizabeth first realised the value of support dogs in classrooms five years ago. “We had a little fella called Hugo who wouldn’t read aloud,” she says, “so we brought Ted in – and we found that Hugo would read to him.”

Hugo’s Mum says Ted’s Space has helped her son immensely. “I actually credit Hugo staying in school for the first two years to Elizabeth and Ted,” she says. “Without them, Hugo would have not been here today - Ted is the only thing that keeps him at school."

The last couple of years, with Covid-19 causing widespread school disruption, have seen the need for services like Ted’s Space increase, Elizabeth says. “It’s absolutely massive how the anxiety level has increased in many of these students, post-COVID,” she says. “It really rocked the world of probably the most vulnerable students - those students that were already a little anxious – it just turned the dial up for them. “Students were leaving, moving, being sick, and classes get merged together because there were no staff.”

During the lockdowns, Teddy did video calls with students – a virtual visit from a friendly face. “I think having Ted is that consistency for them - if they know he’s there, they feel safer,” Elizabeth says.

Pinehaven School teacher Patricia Hvid says, for students who may have suffered trauma of various kinds, Ted, Willow and Daisy provide a “calm and accepting presence”.

“Children just can't learn if they're not in the right head space - they need to be emotionally calm and happy so they can focus on their learning."

Patricia Hvid - Pinehaven School Teacher

“The teaching of empathy has been huge - the children accepting Teddy, learning about what works for him, and those skills have transferred over to being able to work with other children, and adults.

“They love seeing him in the classroom, in the playground, they all just love Teddy - I've never met a child that doesn't.”

Ted’s Space became a charity five years ago, and like most charities, it relies on funding to operate. 

“We need funding to be able to consistently provide this programme to schools - and that's the biggest worry for me, is that we are in a school working with students and then we can't continue,” Elizabeth says.

This year, the ANZ Staff Foundation provided funding of $9900 for Ted’s Space, which allowed them to visit three Wellington schools during terms 2 and 3, connecting with more than 250 students.

“Obviously the ANZ Staff Foundation funding has been incredible for us,” Elizabeth says.

ANZ Staff Foundation Advisory Group Chair David Bricklebank says programmes like Ted’s Space bring immense value to the students.

“We consider many aspects when deciding which funding applications to the ANZ Staff Foundation will be fulfilled, and one of the main ones is how many people will benefit, and also whether there is a clear demonstration of value,” David says. “In the case of Ted’s Space, the value is obvious – helping students stay in school and engage at their best is an amazing outcome.

“We love that we’ve been able to play a part in making schools a safe and happy space for learning.”

Elizabeth says that’s exactly what she’s hearing – that Ted, Daisy and Willow are giving children a reason to stay in school. “We get feedback that children want to come to school to see Ted – kids who are normally anxious to come,” she says. “It may still be a place that is difficult for them - but they have skills now that they've learned through Ted’s Space to be able to cope.

“This is my dream - this is my passion, to build this programme - so for people outside to look at this, and go ‘this really has value’, it’s incredibly rewarding and I feel very privileged.”

This article was originally posted on the ANZ website


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