- A recent study is the first to show mediating effects of dogs on cortisol levels in school children with and without special educational needs.
- The study showed that animal-assisted intervention provided social support to children that helped to moderate and attenuate their stress.
- The study lays the groundwork for future research on how to reduce the stresses of early education and make it more enjoyable for the kids.
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's University of Lincoln psychologist Kerstin Meints and her colleagues called, "Can dogs reduce stress levels in school children? 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 available literature.
I was impressed with the coverage of what we now know on these and related topics, the details of their study, and the care with which they explained and interpreted their important data.1 I also was pleased to read that the well-being of the dogs in this animal-assisted intervention (AAI) study was given serious attention and the dogs could retreat from the study if they chose to do so.
Stress-reducing effects of dogs for kids with and without SEN
To answer the questions in which they were interested, Meints and her team performed two studies in four mainstream and seven special educational needs schools in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire, UK, using 23 dogs of different breeds. Salivary cortisol levels were measured before the study in control groups for whom there were no interventions and before and after in relaxation intervention groups and dog intervention (AAI) groups.
The researchers summarized the major results from this study as follows: "This research is the first to demonstrate mediating effects of AAI on cortisol levels in school children over the school term. These effects were found in both, children with and without, SEN. The study also pioneers the investigation of the efficacy of individual versus group interventions." Some sample data are presented in the figure below (their Figure 8).
They also learned that when compared to children without SEN, youngsters with SEN had significantly higher mean cortisol levels at the beginning of the study (their Figure 2) but the differences between the two groups of students disappeared toward the end of the six-week term because the cortisol levels of non-SEN students in mainstream schools rose in control and relaxation groups during the study. This novel and important finding shows that the normal stresses of being in school clearly affect children without SEN.
The researchers found the higher levels of cortisol in non-SEN students to be worrying: "Given the scientific evidence of adverse effects of stress on learning...this increase in the typical population is alarming. A recent teacher survey showed an increase in stress, anxiety, and panic attacks by 78 percent of primary schools with school leaders also reporting increased fear of academic failure (75 percent) and depression (55 percent) among their pupils in the period since 2014 ."2
What do these data mean and how can they be used?
Overall, school children experience different forms of stressors and AAI using dogs provided social support that helped to 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 "enhance the health and wellbeing of children," and their careful study clearly shows that this is solid advice.
The present study lays much-needed groundwork for future research on how to reduce the stresses of early 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 youngsters who find it to be an extremely challenging and stressful time.
The Key. State of Education Survey Report 2017. Rising to the challenge: Examining the pressures on schools and how they are responding; 2017. Available from https://etclearninghub.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/The-Key-State-of-Education-Report-2017.pdf.
Meints K, Brelsford VL, Dimolareva M, Maréchal L, Pennington K, Rowan E, et al. (2022) Can dogs reduce stress levels in school children? effects of dog-assisted interventions on salivary cortisol in children with and without special educational needs using randomized controlled trials. PLoS ONE 17(6): e0269333. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0269333.