Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Dog made full-time member of school's teaching staff

A dog named Maggie is credited with improving high school pupils' reading skills to the point where she is now on the full-time staff as a teaching assistant. And the nine-year-old Shih Tzu, who is paid with bacon, is also good for discipline, having a calming influence on pupils with a tendency to be anxious or disruptive. Owner Toni Gregory, aged 30, of Brierley Hill, has been working at Earls High School in Halesowen in the West Midlands with Maggie for around two years.

As a result, Maggie's dogged determination in the classroom has improved the reading "ages" of youngsters in her class by an average of eight months - with some leaping in ability by about 30 months in just 10 weeks. There has also been a knock-on effect in pupils' performance in other subjects, including maths, as they are better able to read and understand questions. Mrs Gregory, a former veterinary nurse, said: "We work with reluctant readers - but they love reading to Maggie. We tell them she wants to hear some stories and she sits and looks at the pictures while they read." The school first realised the potential of canine classroom assistants when it welcomed in a guide dog to help a pupil who was visually impaired.

Stuart Berry, director of student needs at the Earls, said: "The benefits weren't just for the girl concerned - we noticed that students, particularly those with autism or asperger’s, were calmed by having the dog around. It was quite astounding and we looked into having Pets As Therapy (PAT) dogs in, as do some primary schools, to help with reading. Toni came in as a volunteer, doing two or three sessions a week to read with children who were reluctant readers. They enjoyed it and it helped them." When there was a vacancy for a teaching assistant, head teacher Tom Johnston offered a full-time post to Mrs Gregory, working with younger pupils, in particular those who had just moved up from primary school.

Mr Berry said: "Toni and Maggie have had a huge impact. We have very good evidence to show the difference they have made for some of our children. The weaker readers have, on average, improved their reading age by eight months over a 10-week period. "Essentially it's about getting them to enjoy reading and, when they realise they can do it, their self confidence develops to read at home and develop new vocabulary." Mr Berry added that the dog was sometimes called into other classes to calm down anxious pupils. And Mrs Gregory said that contact with Maggie had also had a calming effect on pupils with a tendency to be disruptive. While Maggie is still the top dog in the classroom, Mrs Gregory now also has Gracie, her new Shih Tzu puppy, training up as a reading dog.

There's a news video here.

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