Did you know that bullying in school victimizes more than just the child being bullied? “Even children who witness bullying are negatively impacted,” says Paula Neuman, BC SPCA manager of humane education. Bystanders are often left with feelings of guilt, anxiety, fear, insecurity and vulnerability – and the damage can be long lasting.
“That’s one of the many reasons why our organization places such emphasis on humane education,” says Neuman. Humane education can be seen as a type of character education, in which animal-related stories, lessons and activities are used to foster humane values such as respect, kindness and compassion in children.
“When children are willing and able to see things from an animal’s perspective, they learn empathy,” says Neuman. This empathy can then extend to their relationships with each other. “Putting themselves in someone else’s place allows them to better understand how their actions affect others,” says Neuman. “That’s an important step in preventing violence and encouraging prosocial behaviour.”
But why animals? “Most children are naturally drawn to them,” explains Neuman. “By focusing on animals, we can capture their attention and build on their interests and experiences.” Research shows that when children are interested in a subject, the lessons are more likely to stick.
BC SPCA school programs include a suite of curriculum-blended lesson plans on pet care, farm animals, dog bite safety and social justice, as well as classroom presentations by specially-trained BC SPCA humane educators. These animal-themed presentations complement the lesson plans by allowing students to ask questions of a humane educator and, whenever possible, interact with a visiting temperament-tested pet. The presence of the pet reinforces the empathy-building taking place. “Children learn the skills involved in ‘reading’ the animal’s feelings through attention to body language and behaviour,” says Neuman. “They will need similar skills in life to ‘read’ other people.”
This approach is particularly effective with boys, who tend to be less open to showing nurturing behaviour peer-to-peer, yet will readily do so in the presence of an animal. “Animals can be a catalyst for educators working to develop prosocial and empathy skills because they act as a leveler that both boys and girls relate to,” says Neuman.
Ultimately, says Neuman, getting children to think critically about the way they treat animals and, by extension, the way they conduct themselves in the classroom and the world around them is the key to well-rounded humane education. In that way, BC SPCA school programs reach all children – the bully, the bullied and the bystander.
The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a not-for-profit organization reliant on public donations. Our mission is to protect and enhance the quality of life for domestic, farm and wild animals in B.C.