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New Education Program Teaches Compassion for Pets and People

Fourth graders at Ritzman Community Learning Center are gaining a new understanding of compassion with a little help from some furry friends this week. No More Bullying! is a program of the Humane Society of Summit County that is launching in partnership with Akron Public Schools to provide students with skills like empathy and good citizenship – to improve students’ relationships to others and animals. Including pets like dogs, kittens, and rabbits as a part of the program delivery not only brings the material to life, but also engages students’ social and emotional growth in a new way.

No More Bullying! was developed by Wayside Waifs, an animal welfare organization located in Kansas City, MO, and has been adopted by the Humane Society of Summit County (HSSC). HSSC is a no time-limit animal shelter whose mission focuses on helping animals most in need, those suffering from cruelty and neglect, as well as strengthening the bond between people and animals to prevent animal abuse entirely. The organization provides veterinary care to rescued animals, animal adoptions, and humane law enforcement as well as community education programs and support for pet owners.

Through a generous grant from The Kenneth A. Scott Charitable Trust, No More Bullying! is led by trained facilitators at no cost to Summit County schools. The program is evidence-based and aligned with Ohio’s Learning Standards, including the newer Social-Emotional competencies. Students participate in five, one-hour lessons to learn and practice core values of responsibility, self-control, compassion and being humane with the understanding that these values are incompatible with bullying behavior. Through the interactive lessons, they practice using these skills in their interactions in the classroom, school, with their families, and in the community as well as when interacting with animals. While Ritzman CLC is the first school to host the program, HSSC hopes for the opportunity to bring this message across Summit County schools within the next school year.

The program is spearheaded by the HSSC’s Judi Zala, MEd, who brings 30 years of teaching experience to the project. “I am passionate about two things – pets and children. I understand the pressure teachers are under to meet students’ academic needs along with supporting social and emotional development, and I’m so glad to be able to provide this tool that gives them a framework to have these conversations with students. When kids feel safe and respected, and like they have the language to talk about these issues, they are better prepared to learn. When we help them understand and extend those skills in the context of pets, it’s a win-win.”

An important part of helping children learn about pet care and safety is the opportunity to interact with a real pet. Having a living, breathing companion animal walking around the classroom can help students recognize the similarities between healthy interactions with animals and with humans. While the pet featured will vary from classroom to classroom, children will practice how to safely meet a new pet and understand its body language. Students will also learn about the proper care and feeding of their pets, the importance of spaying/neutering to prevent pet overpopulation, and what to do if they find a stray animal.

“As adults it is easy to take pet care for granted because it’s part of our routine. Most children don’t have the same appreciation for the time and responsibility that goes into the proper care of a dog, cat, or other pet. We hope that by teaching these skills early, children will grow to be responsible pet owners and animal advocates in the future,” Zala explains.

School administrators and teachers who have questions or are interested in hosting this program in third, fourth, or fifth grade classrooms in Summit County are encouraged to reach out to Judi Zala by email at jzala@summithumane.org. The program is currently being scheduled in classrooms this spring and a wait list is being compiled for fall 2020 pending funding availability.

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