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Animal-assisted therapy helps McHenry West High School students cope with anxiety

Evelyn Sanchez and Maggie Drost, students in McHenry West High School, interact with a sheep Dec. 12 at Main Stay Therapeutic Farm in Richmond.They are part of an experimental program teaching students to learn positive coping skills while working with farm animals.
Evelyn Sanchez and Maggie Drost, students in McHenry West High School, interact with a sheep Dec. 12 at Main Stay Therapeutic Farm in Richmond.They are part of an experimental program teaching students to learn positive coping skills while working with farm animals.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS – Educators can employ many tactics to correct behavioral problems among students. From proverbial and literal smacks on the wrists to modern-day detentions and suspensions, none work all too well, experts have said.

But a local school district is taking a unique approach: animal-assisted therapy.

McHenry High School District 156, in partnership with Main Stay Therapeutic Farm in Richmond, launched an experiential learning program for at-risk students that’s an alternative to detentions and suspensions.

“It’s something different,” said Becky Covalt, District 156 director of special education. “We are trying to reduce disciplinary issues that would normally involve suspensions. We really want it to be more of an intervention rather than a consequence. The hardest part is getting kids to commit. If we get them there for that first [visit], it’s never a problem trying to get them to come back.”

District 156 has been partnering with Main Stay for three years, allowing select students, including special education classrooms, to participate in animal-assisted activities and therapy and do community service there.

The program is funded by a nearly $11,000 grant from the McHenry County Community Foundation and allows all students a chance to experience animal-assisted therapy.

Program officials are trying to quantify the effects of the therapy and hope to expand the program to other school districts.

“This is such a need nationally,” said Carla Kaizen, animal-assisted learning manager. “Our hope is we really want other school districts to hear about it. It benefits communities because those kids then do stay out of trouble and graduate.”

Students often are dealing with behavioral challenges or unresolved traumas in their lives beyond their emotional capacity to handle, officials said.

One student, Evelyn Sanchez, 16, a junior at McHenry West High School, said the program has helped her deal with anxiety. Giving presentations before classmates and being around lots of people exacerbates that anxiety, she said.

“I can’t control it. I didn’t know how to. I just would have breakdowns, panic attacks. I couldn’t cope. I would feel nauseous, dizzy,” she said.

Through the program, students are taught free association and how to groom and care for animals – such as goats, sheep, miniature horses and rabbits – while learning positive coping skills for confronting conflict in their own lives. Most of the 10 animals on the farm have been rescued.

One exercise requires students to pick words that describe themselves, their animals and their peers, emphasizing positive character traits they also are taught in school.

Sanchez’s favorite is Blondie, a miniature horse with whom she feels a special connection. During a recent visit, Sanchez said she was feeling more stressed than usual in anticipation of a speech she had to give before a group of her peers. Being with Blondie helped calm her nerves.

“I feel at peace, like I can actually relax ... like I can breathe,” she said. “I don’t want to be overwhelmed anymore.”

For some students, being around the animals is a lot easier than interacting with people at school.

“I just don’t like talking to people as much,” said Maggie Drost, 15, a McHenry West freshman. “Sometimes I shut down when something triggers me.”

Drost said people always rush her, but animals don’t. If they need a break, animals communicate that by simply walking away – a tactic Drost hopes to learn herself.

Her favorites on the farm are Toto, a donkey, and Thomas, a sheep. With the latter, she shares the experience of having come from an abusive home.

“I suffered a lot in foster care,” Drost said.

Learning to read the animals’ body language helps students develop a sense of self-awareness about how others might read and react to their own actions and expressions. Being around the animals helps elevate students’ moods.

“You are interacting with another living being,” said Jean Maraist, Main Stay program director. “They give immediate, authentic and objective feedback about your behavior. They don’t fake it, and you don’t get that with a person always.”

Students learn to match the animals’ energy levels, becoming less agitated, moving at a slower pace and speaking more softly.

“For kids that have pets, they use the animals as a coping strategy at home,” District 156 social worker Ashley Burger said.

Petting, grooming, feeding and walking the animals help some students with anger management.

“It helps to come here ... focus on something else other than what I’m stressing out about,” said Anna White, 15, a 10th-grader at the West campus. “It was just kind of like a weight was lifted up.”

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