Girls who enter a therapeutic boarding school program may have issues effectively communicating their feelings, or bonding with peers. This discomfort may cause them to feel disengaged from a traditional therapeutic session like one on one or group therapy. Animal therapy can be an incredibly powerful and transformative tool in these cases.
Helping Students Break Bad Habits
Some struggling students, who are reluctant to engage in traditional therapy, can actually feel stuck in their negative habits. For example, they are continuously refusing to go to school and they have refused so many times that it’s become second nature to wake up in the morning and fight about school. For those girls, it may take some attunement to understand what is really going on. Are they feeling anxious and shut down, or is this a habit? Here we can use animals as a motivator to help them move on. We can set up small motivations such as setting up a special session with the animals if they get a B in math class. Or maybe telling them: “We’ll take a walk down to the farm between your second and third class period if you can attend all three classes. This can help them break out of that habit when they have a reward they can look forward to.
Helping Students Who Are Disengaged Due to Anxiety
For the students who are feeling anxious and shut down because of that anxiety, animal therapy can be a tool in understanding what exactly is going on. For example, if a student is feeling overwhelmed and shutting down, their teacher may suggest a walk down to the animal barn as a break. It gives them an opportunity to remove themselves from a stress-inducing situation while also providing some distraction. A student may initially be completely shut down and unresponsive, but that changes when they see the animals. Maybe the animals are being cute and playing. Observing this, students can start to break down their shell by noticing things like “Oh they’re so funny!” or “Are these goats trying to eat my backpack?”. It’s a break from that tension they were feeling. They can talk about the animals and interact with the animals, but there is also the space to discuss what they themselves are experiencing. The simple act of asking an animal: “What’s going on? What do you need?” opens up a conversation students can ask themselves the same questions when they’re in a moment of anxiety. Working with animals breaks that tension. We start talking about the animals, we start laughing a little bit. Then after a few minutes we can start to explore “What was going on there?” The student might feel calmer and more regulated, and therefore be able to identify things like: “I get anxious about tests coming up” or “Someone’s been mean to me.”
It’s a bridge to starting those tough conversations. Then, we can start brainstorming solutions.
The animals are a great breaker of tension where we take the focus off the situation for a minute, go take a physical break, and then come back to whatever’s going on.
Asheville Academy Can Help
Our campus is filled with a wide variety of animals. Strolling across our private rural campus nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains, one might see horses grazing in the meadows, goats that insist on being petted, and Ruby Sue, our beloved pot-bellied pig who loves to be cuddled. You may even run into a few chickens, bunnies, or one of our friendly dogs like Gatsby.
Many students find the opportunity to interact with horses and other therapy animals to be the most fun and rewarding component of their time at Asheville Academy. Each of these animals adds something unique and special to the animal therapy program, and are loved by our students. For more information about how animal therapy and Asheville Academy can help your daughter please call (828) 604-6434.
Julie has been working with horses and youth for over ten years. She began working with horses as a young, horse-crazy girl, and it turns out it was not just “a phase” as her parents originally thought! She went on to compete in the Hunter/Jumper world as a teen and through college, where she began to combine her two passions of being around horses and working with kids.
Julie majored in Equine Studies at Virginia Intermont College and graduated with a degree in Outdoor Education from Warren Wilson College. After college, Julie worked with adolescent girls at several therapeutic boarding schools and wilderness programs before joining the AAG family. She enjoys horseback riding (of course!), knitting, gardening, playing the banjo, and hanging out with her many pets.