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Mutt-i-grees & Empathy: An Innovative Approach to Social and Emotional Learning

By Marsha Rabe

Dorothy and Toto. Timmy and Lassie. The Little Rascals and Petey.

The connection between kids and dogs has been around since Romulus and Remus met their surrogate mother, and no doubt even before. In mythology, literature, and life, children and their faithful canine companions have embodied the sort of gentle, enriching, and nurturing relationship most everyone would like to enjoy. It’s a bond that helps us stretch beyond the limits of our own species, enabling us to make genuine, reciprocal contact with a sentient creature different from ourselves—and yet similar. In other words, it’s a way to experience empathy.

Principals know that empathy is key to creating and maintaining a positive classroom climate; it’s the glue that holds together civility and learning. Today, for principals from California to Arkansas, and from Kentucky to Connecticut, shelter dogs have emerged as education’s empathy experts, thanks to an innovative program called the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum.

Designed by Yale University’s School of the 21st Century (Yale 21C), the program is the brainchild of the Pet Savers Foundation, the developmental arm of the North Shore Animal League America, the oldest and largest animal shelter and adoption operation in the world and a pioneer in the no-kill shelter movement. “Mutt-i-gree,” a term coined by the folks at the Animal League, is defined as any dog, cat, kitten, or puppy that has been adopted or is awaiting adoption at a shelter. By putting Mutt-i-grees at the center of the program, this ingenious curriculum approaches social and emotional learning (SEL) from a unique perspective, making shelter animals—both virtual and actual—catalysts for compassion and learning.

Funded by the Cesar Millan Foundation, the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is now established in thousands of schools from coast to coast. The Curriculum is a multi-faceted, well-structured, and thoroughly researched model that promotes responsibility, self-confidence, and resiliency by tapping into children’s natural affinity for dogs. The goal is threefold: to foster social and emotional skills, to enrich all academic subjects, and to reset the paradigm for humane education.

The Curriculum comprises five units, each presenting a theme and reflecting a key principle in SEL: Achieving Awareness, Finding Feelings, Encouraging Empathy, Cultivating Cooperation, and Dealing with Decisions. Lessons feature a selection of activities, vocabulary, related readings and resources, as well as suggestions for role-playing and ways to involve family and community. The Curriculum is taught sequentially, moving from basic concepts (How do I feel?) to more complex ideas that require compassion and imagination. (How would a dog feel? How might another child feel?)

Lessons also feature Dog Dialogs, mini tutorials in dog behavior and humane education to help kids understand dogs better and gain self-confidence, a sense of responsibility, and insight into their own behavior and the actions of others. Often presented by Cesar Millan, Dog Dialog topics include how to meet a dog, how to read canine body language and interpret barking, how to stay calm yet assertive when a dog does something upsetting, and how to be your dog’s best friend. Vocabulary like consistency, responsibility, sensors, attention, species, respect, pack, and discipline support the Dog Dialogs, helping students learn from one of the most social species on the planet—dogs—what it takes to interact successfully with others.

Because of the Curriculum’s flexibility, dogs may be present in the classroom either vicariously, via a charming Mutt-i-gree plush puppet or “in person,” in the form of a therapy dog, for example. Yale’s research shows that vicarious dogs—dog books, stories, songs, visits to animal shelters, and online contact with the Animal League—work just as well real dogs when it comes to eliciting empathy and cultivating a calm and nurturing class climate.

WHAT EDUCATORS ARE SAYING

Ponderosa Elementary (K-5) is a rural school located on a hilltop in Ashland, Kentucky, population 22,000. A classic river town, Ashland sits on the banks of the Ohio, surrounded by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Ponderosa, which introduced the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum in 2009 in grades K-3, enrolls 420 students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Like youngsters across the country, they face an array of problems related to the nation’s struggling economy. Principal Matthew Spade notes that the percentage of free and reduced lunch students has almost doubled in the last two years, even though Ashland’s population has fallen slightly.

For Spade, the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum offers a powerful new tool for addressing his school’s challenges. “One of the most important parts of our mission,” he says, “is to educate the whole child—social, emotional, cognitive, and physical. The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum provides a clear and effective path to access the emotional, empathic, and sympathetic abilities of our students, who come to us with many different needs and from many different home environments.”

Despite their varied backgrounds, Ponderosa’s students have one thing in common—affection for pets. “Mutt-i-grees incorporates that common experience,” Spade says. “And commonalities create interactive and collaborative learning experiences. The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum provides an opportunity for students, no matter their circumstances, to find common ground for learning. And there’s been a noticeable culture shift toward increased understanding,” he adds. “I can attest to the fact that visits to my office involving bullying, for instance, have definitely dropped as our Mutt-i-grees Curriculum took off. Empathy is easily the most important skill needed to decrease bullying, and the confidence that students need to confront bullying where it hides creates an environment in which bullies do not feel comfortable continuing their behavior.”

Norma Meek, Ponderosa’s curriculum events director and coordinator of parent involvement, praises the program’s ability to involve students, teachers, and parents alike. “The teachers embraced the curriculum from the git-go,” she says. “They found it easy to implement, and they appreciate the way it crosses the whole academic curriculum science, math, literacy, and art.”

And the kids? “Well,” she says, “they look forward every day to ‘Mutt-i-grees Time.’ They even love the name. It’s not some abstract title about social and emotional learning. It’s about dogs, something they can understand immediately and have fun saying.”

Meek, an educator for 46 years, says she has never encountered an SEL curriculum as versatile and effective as Mutt-i-grees. She is most impressed by the way parents have climbed aboard the Mutt-i-grees bandwagon, even organizing holiday parties for animals at the local shelter. “This Curriculum opens dialog between parents and kids,” she says. “For the Christmas party last year, they all went to the stores together—parents and kids—to shop for gifts for the dogs. They got the stores to donate food, wrapped the presents together, and really, just walking up and down the aisles together talking about what to get the animals, created another shared level of conversation. And,” she adds, “the kids did not mind at all not getting presents themselves. They were sharing with the animals, and making a difference.”

She also says that the Curriculum’s physical activity component is crucial to its success, using dance, games, and yoga to help kids expend some of their boundless energy so they can calm down and learn. “Mutt-i-grees is a very social curriculum,” she says. “It fosters pair-sharing, teamwork, group singing, dancing, and talking things out. I now see second graders spontaneously role-playing and being more tolerant of each other, even using Mutt-i-grees vocabulary to express their feelings and apologize to one another.”

To illustrate her point, Meek tells the story of a first grader named Mikey who didn’t speak at grade level, acted out when anyone approached him, and was generally frustrated, disruptive, and isolated. After the Mutt-i-grees lesson called Finding Feelings, Mikey walked up to his teacher and said, “He broke my feelings.” Startled, the teacher asked what happened, and Mikey explained that another boy had taken his toy truck. They approached the other boy, who said he was sorry and returned Mikey’s truck. “He found words for his feelings and was able to ask for help to solve a problem.” says Meek, “Together, they could ‘fix’ Mikey’s broken feelings. And Mikey is now speaking up in class and learning. It really worked!”

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Twenty-three hundred miles west of Ashland, in Lake View Terrace, California, principal David Riddick is observing similar Mutt-i-grees-related phenomena, in a school population that is very different from Ponderosa’s. Fenton Avenue Charter School is really two schools in one, serving grades K-1 as the Fenton Avenue Primary Center, and grades 2-5 as the Fenton Avenue Charter School. Santa Monica Boulevard Community Charter, serving grades K-6, joined the trio of Fenton Charter Public Schools just recently. A highly respected, certified charter school, Fenton enrolls 1,500 students, ninety percent Hispanic and ten percent African American. As part of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Fenton serves a very low-income area, with many students coming from extremely difficult family situations. Most of the children are second-language learners, and all have free or reduced breakfast and lunch. Many live in Hope Gardens, a part of the city’s Union Rescue Mission. These children have been placed in a setting outside the inner city, a setting where they can live, go to school, and change the circumstances of their daily lives and their futures.

Despite the cultural, social, and geographical differences, these students, like their Kentucky counterparts, have responded with enthusiasm to Mutt-i-grees. Riddick, who is principal for grades 2-5, says the Curriculum improves not only classroom climate, but faculty rapport as well.

“Mutt-i-grees has strengthened our sense of community, beginning when we started to pilot the Curriculum in 2010,” says Riddick. “Everyone has a dog or remembers a favorite dog, and simply by virtue of being a topic of conversation, dogs have gotten faculty talking to each other about themselves. It’s led to a powerfully human connection and helped create a warmer, more nurturing atmosphere, even in the midst of tension.”

A strong proponent of SEL, Riddick says that Mutt-i-grees fosters an environment in which learning can happen. “If you can’t reach them,” he says, “you can’t teach them. Social and emotional learning is the underpinning of all our academic efforts. Fenton’s mission is to instill the joy of learning at every level, whether kids are headed to college or not. We want to teach life skills so kids can be rooted in who they are, not merely in what they do. We want them to be lifelong learners and productive, collaborative members of society. Mutt-i-grees dovetails perfectly with our mission. It enhances self- and social awareness and encourages students to develop a sense of responsibility toward themselves, toward each other, toward animals, and toward the environment. It meets our kids at whatever developmental level they’re at, and then takes them higher.”

Riddick was especially impressed with the power of Mutt-i-grees during an oversight visit from representatives of the LAUSD. As a charter school, Fenton undergoes close scrutiny on a regular basis, a process that includes meetings with parents. “During an interview, one of our parents, who has two children with autism enrolled at Fenton, said she has seen a remarkable change in her children, a change she attributed directly and spontaneously to the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum. She said they are in a different place now because of Mutt-i-grees, something they could never have achieved elsewhere.” The District took note and recognized Mutt-i-grees as an Effective Instructional Model.

Riddick points to Jeter, Fenton’s licensed therapy dog, as the hero of this story. A small black pit bull mix, Jeter is Fenton’s “Mutt-i-gree extraordinaire.” His human companion, Toni Frear, is Fenton’s counselor. She adopted Jeter at the Animal League in 2009 while familiarizing herself with the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum. He is now a vital part of Fenton’s school environment. Riddick believes that the two students with autism were able to open up and experience feelings they didn’t even know they had—and certainly could not name—because they connected with Jeter in ways they could not connect with their families, teachers, or other students.

So what’s going on here? Do dogs have magical powers? Well, probably not. More likely, it’s a case of physiology, not canine hocus-pocus. Research shows that even thinking about dogs lowers the levels of cortisol in our brains and ups our oxytocin. Cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, is related to stress and the fight or flight response and is often associated with anxiety, depression, and impulsive behavior. It also shuts down learning. Oxytocin, on the other hand, is called “the hormone of love.” Exclusive to mammals, this naturally occurring chemical, produced in the hypothalamus, is released in mega-doses during childbirth and lactation, but is in present in human beings of both genders all the time. For humans, higher levels seem to increase trust and reduce fear, to facilitate bonding—maternal and social—and to evoke feelings of contentment, generosity, and yes, even empathy. Recent studies focusing on autism indicate that oxytocin may reduce repetitive behaviors and improve a person’s ability to interpret emotional states in himself and others. As for dogs, experts say that what’s good for the human is good for the mutt-i-gree. The human-dog bond is just that, a bond, with both partners enjoying a boost of calming oxytocin with each and every pet, cuddle, and shared glance.

Toni Frear’s experience with Jeter more than supports the science. “Jeter comes on campus and children wave and say, ‘Hi Jeter,’ everywhere he walks,” says Frear. “But I didn't realize the impact he has had on the children until one particular day when I got a call from a teacher telling me of a student who was disruptive in class, running, knocking papers off desks, and being defiant. I walked into the class silently and signaled the teacher to carry on with her lesson while I went to the back of the room and sat down with Jeter by my side, pretending to listen to the lesson. The child who had been disruptive froze, looked at me, then at the teacher, and finally at Jeter. He calmly walked up to me, looked in my eyes, and said, ‘Can I pet Jeter?’ When I said yes, he knelt down and petted my dog and instantly loosened his body and began asking me questions about the dog. The situation was diffused without incident. Children have a natural affinity for dogs, and dogs have an innate ability to calm us.”

Like the students with autism, this defiant little boy could make safe, calm contact with a gentle animal, could look him in the eyes without fear of judgment or rejection, and could regain control of his emotions and settle into a quiet conversation with the human on the other end of the leash.

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Clearly, Mutt-i-grees has the power to surprise people, even teachers and counselors who use it daily. One of its most surprising traits is its ability to take on a life of its own. In tiny Bee Branch, Arkansas (pop. 350), Principal Tim Smith has seen Mutt-i-grees become a vital part of not only the classroom, but the entire Van Buren County community. Located in the foothills of the Ozarks, South Side Bee Branch Elementary School serves four small towns and enrolls about 530 students. In many ways, Bee Branch and nearby towns typify modern rural life. Neighbors live far apart, the sense of community dependent upon history, family, traditions, and institutions that bring people together, schools chief among them.

Smith, who speaks his mind and is quick to laugh, says he’s not “a test score guy.” “In my opinion, if you take care of the social and emotional learning, the test scores will take care of themselves. So we look for different kinds of things for the kids,” he says. “Outside-the-box type programs. But when I first heard about Mutt-i-grees…well, I hesitated for a minute. Then I thought, ‘Puppets and dogs? Why not?’ I knew those kids’ eyes would light up.”

In 2009, Mutt-i-grees made its Arkansas debut in three Van Buren County school districts—South Side Bee Branch, Shirley, and Clinton. The implementation, orchestrated by the county’s school-based mental health program, paired Mutt-i-grees lead-teachers with general classroom teachers. Leaders had to devise the best way to integrate the curriculum into already busy classrooms, a task that proved much easier than first imagined. “Teachers love it,” says Natalie Horton, a Mutt-i-grees lead teacher at Southside and Shirley. “They say they have never seen their students be so creative, which is totally refreshing and makes teaching easier and much more fun.” Horton says the plush puppet has become so popular there have been contests, complete with nominations and voting, to name the puppet, all of which teaches practical lesson in cooperation, teamwork, and civics. In fact, the puppet has evolved into such a classroom buddy that students vie to bring it home for the weekend. Horton and her colleagues say that hosting the plush puppet for a weekend sleepover encourages family discussion at the dinner table and prompts parents to read dog books to their kids and reminisce about their own childhood pets. Parents also write in the plush puppet’s weekend journal, providing another avenue of communication as well as a way for teachers to acquire insight into family dynamics. It’s all worth it, they say, even if the puppet got left behind a couple of times during weekend visit to grandma and had to travel back home via UPS.

Horton and her students were so besotted by Mutt-i-grees that they wanted to share it with the entire county. They composed an anthem, “Calling Mutt-i-grees,” and produced a video starring almost everyone in town, from the superintendent of schools to the local dentist to the veterinarian, a trio of construction workers, the high school football team, a policeman, cheerleaders, and a dozen or more others, all singing, dancing, and “Calling Mutt-i-grees.” The result is an infectious four-minute lesson in community building and proof positive that, as several of Horton’s colleagues insist, the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum has set the Bee Branch faculty “on fire.” Such passion is music, pure and simple, to Principal Smith’s ears. “If my teachers are happy,” he says, “then I’m happy.”

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At St. Martin de Porres Academy (SMDP), just a few short blocks from Yale’s campus in New Haven, Conn., students have assembled for their morning meeting. It’s a rainy Thursday just before Halloween, so naturally a topic of discussion is what will be allowed as part of tomorrow’s school costumes. Teachers also remind students to write thank-you notes to someone who recently hosted a retreat. After presenting a few other agenda items, the assembly reads a prayer asking God to help everyone value friendship, Next is the Pledge of Allegiance followed by a brief, silent mediation. The mood is calm, students relaxed and attentive. Then, it’s off to the classrooms for English and math, the first two subjects of the day.

A small, independent Catholic school, SMDP is part of the NativityMiguel Network of middle schools founded in 2006 to provide tuition-free, extended-day classes for underserved students from low-income families. The movement, which began in New York City’s lower east side in 1971, now numbers 64 Nativity-model schools in 19 states. Admission is open to all, regardless of race, religion, color, or ethnicity. Now in its eighth year, SMDP enrolls just 62 students in grades five to eight School days are 10 hours long, and the school year runs a full 11 months. In addition, SMDP makes a 12-year commitment to all students and their families, pledging academic, personal, and financial support from fifth grade through college.

Principal Kelly O’Leary says that Mutt-i-grees, which the school has integrated into its religion classes, builds an invaluable bridge between theory and practice, giving students a “common language and shared experience that help them talk to each other in a new way. Learning must be concrete and tangible,” she says,” especially for 5th and 6th graders. And Mutt-i-grees skills are ideal for mediating differences in a concrete way. Kids can say, ‘This is how I’m feeling. I understand how you feel, too, but this is how I’m feeling.’ They are able to validate their own feelings and at the same time see and experience another’s point of view.

“This is also a powerful anti-bullying tool,” she says. “We’re a small school, so we don't have the usual bullying problems. But we all know that bullying comes from feelings of inadequacy. If you can address that right away, if you can give kids the attention they need in a safe space, then their self-confidence will grow and those feelings of inadequacy will diminish.”

SMDP students became Mutt-i-grees pioneers in the late winter of 2010 when, working with the Animal League, they launched the Mutt-i-grees Internship. Now in its third year, the program takes SMDP’s fifth graders to the Animal League for an intensive five-day crash course at a world-class animal shelter. As Mutt-i-gree interns, they explore every aspect of the shelter’s work, from rescue and grooming to veterinary care and marketing. They learn that spay/neuter is the only means of addressing the heartbreaking pet overpopulation problem, and they design posters to promote Mutt-i-gree adoptions. The first internship was such a successful bonding experience that this year’s entering fifth-graders did their internship during the summer, so they could start the academic year with a shared and exciting adventure under their belts. Throughout their week on Long Island, their teachers ask them repeatedly, “Who is the hero in this situation?’ This resonant question forms the basis for their journals entries and essays, many of which redefine heroism in terms of empathy, compassion, and responsibility.

Another important lesson of the internship was learning how to evaluate canine behavior and recognize dangerous situations. For many of these students, neighborhood dogs present a threat; the only dogs they know are scary, loud, and out of control. One mother, in fact, told O’Leary that she did not want her daughter to go to the Animal League, that her little girl was petrified of dogs and that being in the shelter would only make things worse.

“This mother was really upset,” says O’Leary, “and I couldn’t blame her. But part of our mission is to counteract stereotypes, including the dangerous dog stereotype. It was hard to ask this mother to relinquish control, but that’s what I did. I asked her to trust us, to let us take her daughter through the process slowly and with support. She agreed, and by the end of the week, her daughter was petting dogs and feeling much more comfortable and self-confident around them. The mother was very happy, and I’m personally so pleased to have helped this girl begin to cope with her fear.

“I love animals,” says O’Leary. ”I grew up with dogs. Knowing them is one of the wonderful things that make me who I am. So besides the obvious social, emotional, and cognitive value of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, there is the pleasure of the dogs themselves. This program broadens the wealth of personal experience we can offer our students moving forward. It enables us to give them opportunities to grown in ways they otherwise would never have.”

SMDP President, Allison Rivera, agrees, noting that many of these inner-city children have very little positive contact with nature. “These kids are so removed from the natural world,” she says. “They really haven’t any experience with it. They are terrified of insects, everything. That’s one reason among many that going to the Animal League was an eye-opener. It gave them a chance to see and relate to animals, which means relating to nature.”

In 2011, Mike Lazarre and Maya Gant, who were among the first group of Mutt-i-grees Interns, traveled to Manhattan to be interviewed on CNN about bullying. Both say they loved the experience, mainly because it gave them a chance to sing Mutt-i-grees’ praises. “I like this curriculum,” says Mike, leaning back in the couch in President Rivera’s office. “It’s fun because there are a lot of learning activities for kids who like to get hands-on. It teaches you teamwork, and this year our school motto is ‘T-E-A-M. Together Everyone Achieves More.’ Mutt-i-grees really represents that.”

Mike also appreciates the SEL aspect of the Curriculum. “Mutt-i-grees helps you learn how to act toward dogs,” he says, “because they have feelings, too, and then how to act toward your peers. Our class has a close bond now, because Mutt-i-grees helped us relate to each other and learn about each other’s abilities and limits. And we were all new here last year, so it helped us welcome this year’s fifth grade class, because we remember how it felt to be new. We all fit in here.”

Asked what his favorite Mutt-i-grees lesson is, and Mike goes to the heart of the matter. “I think it’s the lesson where you learn the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is when you feel bad for somebody, and empathy is when you connect to somebody because you know how they feel. You really get it.”

Maya, who admits to having had a fear of dogs, says that Mutt-i-grees helped her overcome her canine aversion. “The Curriculum opened me up to dogs and taught me not to judge people or dogs by how they look or what you think you know about them. An ugly dog could be the friendliest dog ever, and that’s the same with people. And I learned a lot about pit bulls. They are really nice dogs who a long time ago were firefighters and then there was Petey with The Little Rascals. And they were known as ‘nanny dogs’ because they were good with kids. So it’s not the breed. It’s how they’re treated, just like people.”

Maya’s insights into dogs and humans show a nuance and thoughtfulness that belie her years. Clearly, the lessons of Mutt-i-grees run deep. “The school I went to before this?” says Maya, leaning forward in her chair. “Well, they could use Mutt-i-grees, because there was bullying there. It’s like when a dog gets hit a lot for little things, they put their guard up instead of letting it down, and they get aggressive and don’t let themselves be loved. That’s like bullies. I think bullies get bullied maybe at home or someplace, and they put their guard up and take it out on other kids because they can’t confront the people who are bullying them. Mutt-i-grees would help,” she adds, leaning even closer. “I think it should go worldwide!”

To order a copy of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, please visit http://education.muttigrees.org/signup.

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