Getting back to school after COVID disruptions was difficult for 8-year-old Logan*. Before schools shut down, he was being severely bullied.
Remote learning offered some sanctuary from the physical and verbal harassment from his bullies. However, once school returned to in-person learning, Logan’s anxiety skyrocketed.
Although he was moving to a new school away from his bullies, Logan suffered panic attacks just thinking about stepping back into a classroom. When his mum drove him to his new school, he would kick, scream, cry, and bite when she tried to get him out of the car. On days when she managed to get him through the school gates, Logan’s anxiety was so high he refused to enter the classroom without her.
Eventually, Logan stopped going to school altogether, and that’s when he engaged our Paw Pals program, designed to support children who are at risk of, or disengaged from education because they struggle to learn in a mainstream classroom.
Logan clasped his mum’s hand as they walked through the school gate to meet his Paw Pal, the therapy dog that would support him to learn.
Paw Pals facilitator, Dugald, greeted the pair and introduced them to his 3-year-old Golden Labrador, Bruno.
“Bruno found it really hard to go to the crowded dog park after the pandemic and was nervous being around lots of other dogs again after he had spent a long time at home just with me.”,” Dugald told Logan.
Logan was shocked. He looked up at Dugald and asked, “Really?”.
“Absolutely!” replied Dugald. “Bruno stuck by my side the whole time. He didn’t want to let me out of his sight.”
Logan wanted to know how Bruno overcame this challenge, so Dugald shared with him Bruno’s green, yellow, and red “Zones”. These are what Bruno’s behaviours might look like when Bruno is feeling happy, anxious, or very stressed.
Logan was surprised to see how much Bruno’s Zones looked like his own. When they were both in their Red Zone, experiencing feelings of high stress or anxiety, both Bruno and Logan would run around and stop listening to anyone. Dugald explained to Logan that it was impossible to try and talk to Bruno, or get him to perform any tricks, because in this state he wasn’t capable of doing anything.
“Logan was experiencing these big feelings and emotions, but he didn’t know how to describe or articulate them,” Dugald explained.
“When kids don’t know how to say what they’re feeling they’ll just go straight to the Red Zone and disengage from everything and everyone around them. “
“Bruno and I worked with Logan and gave him the tools to describe how he was feeling before he hit his limit, so we could support him before he disengaged.”
Logan began to understand how his feelings of stress and anxiety about school meant that he was constantly in his Red Zone and incapable of learning in the classroom. Now that he could name his feelings, and recognise when he was in his Red Zone, Dugald could show him ways he might calm himself down.
Logan learned that both he and Bruno benefited from some quiet time. When Bruno is stressed, said Dugald, he takes a time out—he lies down on his bed and has a rest. So Logan tried doing the same the next time he felt anxious. He took a time out, sat down, read a book by himself, and felt the anxiety melt away.
“Before, when Logan was heightened, he would get up and run out of the classroom, because he didn’t have the words to be able to tell his teachers how he was feeling. Now he tells them if he’s feeling stressed, anxious, or if he needs support. He has the strategies to calm himself down.”
“He’s come such a long way and I would not have been able to make this progress with Logan if it wasn’t for Bruno. Having Bruno there takes some of the pressure off the child. The dog provides another level of safety, especially for kids who have had a lot of adults in their life who have let them down, they can always rely on their Paw Pal.”
Logan is starting to see school as a safe place, thanks to Bruno and Dugald.
When he started with Paw Pals, he needed his mum sit by his side the entire session. Throughout the term, his mum was staying for 5 minutes less each session—now she waves goodbye to Logan at the school gate as he confidently takes Bruno’s lead and walks him into school.
Logan still has a long way to go. But with his Paw Pal by his side, he is instilled with the confidence to take on any challenges he faces, because now he has the tools and strategies to handle them.
Paw Pals supports kids across Metro Melbourne and recently has expanded to meet the rising need of kids in the regional areas of Geelong and Ballarat and is funded by our annual fundraising campaign, Paws4Kids, which sees every dollar donated doubled by our generous matching partners. Find out more at www.paws4kids.org.au.
* Name changed to protect privacy