Source: Serg Alesenko/Pexels.
Scientific studies and a good number of personal stories report that dogs can help reduce stress levels in humans of all ages. A recent open access study by UK University of Lincoln psychologist Kerstin Meints and colleagues called: “Can dogs reduce stress levels in school-age children? The effects of dog-assisted interventions on salivary cortisol in children with and without special educational needs using randomized controlled trials” provides some very important data showing that dogs can reduce stress levels in children with and without special educational needs (SEN) and also offers an extremely valuable and critical review of the available literature.
I was impressed with the coverage of what we now know about these and related topics, the details of their study, and the care with which they explained and interpreted their important data.1 I was also pleased to read that the welfare of the dogs in this animal-assisted intervention (IAA) study was taken seriously. attention and the dogs could withdraw from the study if they chose to do so.
Stress-reducing effects of dogs for children with and without SEN
To answer the questions that interested them, Meints and her team conducted two studies in four regular and seven special needs schools in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire, UK, using 23 dogs of different breeds. Salivary cortisol levels were measured before the study in the control groups for which there were no interventions and before and after in the relaxation intervention groups and the dog intervention (AAI) groups.
The researchers summarized the main results of this study as follows: “This investigation is the first to demonstrate the mediating effects of AAI on cortisol levels in school-age children during the school term. These effects were found in children with and without SEN. The study is also a pioneer in investigating the efficacy of individual versus group interventions.” Some sample data is presented in the figure below (its Figure 8).
Mean pre-post salivary cortisol levels for the SEN cohort shown by intervention condition. The error bars indicate the standard error of the mean.
Source: “Can dogs reduce stress levels in schoolchildren?”, Open Access
They also learned that, compared to children without SEN, youth with SEN had significantly higher mean cortisol levels at the start of the study (their Figure 2), but the differences between the two groups of students disappeared towards the end of the study period. six weeks. because the cortisol levels of students without special educational needs in mainstream schools increased in the control and relaxation groups during the study. This novel and important finding shows that the normal stress of being in school clearly affects children without SEN.
The researchers found the higher cortisol levels in students without special educational needs concerning: “Given the scientific evidence of the adverse effects of stress on learning… this increase in the typical population is alarming. A recent survey of teachers showed a increase in stress, anxietyand panic attacks in 78 percent of elementary schools and school leaders also reported an increase fear of academic failure (75 percent) and depression (55 percent) among its students in the period since 2014 .2
What does this data mean and how can it be used?
In general, school-age children experience different forms of stressors, and AAI using dogs provided social support that helped moderate and attenuate stress. Focusing on the big picture, the researchers note that their data provide evidence that there is a need for changes in educational practices to “improve the health and well-being of children,” and their careful study clearly shows that this is sound advice. .
The present study lays the much-needed foundation for future research on how to reduce early childhood stress. education and how AAI can benefit students with or without SEN. We can only hope that the results of these studies will make early education more enjoyable for young people who find it extremely challenging and stressful time.