Northaven Elementary is a Title 1 school and an ELL magnet school that services a diverse K-5 student population in southern Indiana. The Executive Director of Elementary Education for Greater Clark County Schools, introduced the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum to the school to fulfill the need for a school-wide social emotional curriculum to help all students learn and grow in their ability to interact and get along with others. Greater Clark County School District has implemented PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support) and CCR (College and Career Readiness) programs, and all students are taught social skills, which are positively reinforced to help students develop the soft skills necessary for success in school and the business world. Susan B., a veteran educator, explains that the Curriculum provides a natural context for real world applications of these skills. “I believe that using the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is a positive step toward accomplishing the goal of cultivating empathy and compassion in students,” she says. “I have watched the students respond in such positive ways to the Curriculum. I know that if I can tap into their natural feelings of empathy and compassion for animals, I can help them connect those feelings to other situations with their peers, family, and people in their community.”

What makes the lessons so impactful, Susan explains, is the focus on dogs – and shelter dogs in particular. “I love that the discussions center around dogs and building empathy for shelter pets, as this is a real world context for relevance,” she says. “Research tells us that using relevant, meaningful activities, which both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know, is what helps them learn and retain information.”

“The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum has impacted the staff/administration at Northaven Elementary by targeting the belief systems and school culture. The program has made a difference in both the adults and students in regard to the relationships that have been strengthened by integrating empathy into the school, all day, every day. The Curriculum focuses on empathy and the understanding of another person’s thoughts and feelings. This has helped the faculty to better understand where the students are coming from emotionally, as these feelings have a direct impact on the student’s decision-making and behaviors. This greater understanding of students and families has allowed Northaven staff members to provide optimal opportunities to build relationships with all stakeholders and ultimately to achieve greater student achievement.”

Dr. Kimberly C. Hartlage

Executive Director of Elementary Education, Greater Clark County Schools

Susan has created PowerPoint presentations to support the lessons from the Curriculum and incorporates videos and photos to visually stimulate her students. This is especially helpful for ELL students and students with special needs, she notes, but all students find it engaging. “Students have seen everything from videos of dogs with a talent for surfing, while learning to recognize their own talents; to a news video about how to read a dog’s body language, when learning how people also show feelings through their body language. There are so many ways to use dogs to help students connect to and understand the social skills taught within the Curriculum, and learning about dogs really helps hook the students and spark great conversations. There are so many connections that can be made between dogs and people within the themes and topics in this curriculum, and students can be easily guided toward making these connections. Once these connections are made, I have found that students are much more open and willing to discuss the topic at hand, and to share how they feel it applies to their own life,” she explains.

This fall, Northaven Elementary hosted a Family Service Volunteer Day, which provided students, together with their families, a wonderful avenue to learn about and help Mutt-i-grees in their community. At the event, the school raised over $1,100 for their local animal shelter, an impressive feat considering the school’s demographics (over 70% free and reduced lunch). The students who received the top donations had their picture taken with Mayor Moore, which left a big impression on them. This personal visit to thank students sent a powerful message about just how important their contributions were. He praised the students for taking initiative to help their community, and encouraged other schools follow their lead.

According to Susan, helping animals has had a profound impact on the students at Northaven Elementary. “I think it has empowered them to know that when they see a need, they have the ability to do something about it,” she explains. “They feel proud knowing that even as elementary students they are able to make a positive difference. I think it helps them realize the power of teamwork – they are able to see the positive results of what they can achieve together as a student body.”

Susan feels lucky to work in an environment that supports social emotional learning. She explains, “I am grateful to work for a school district with leaders like Dr. Hartlage, who understands that social emotional learning is the key to a healthier school climate and ultimately greater academic achievement.”