Dragons, Like Chocolate, Make Everything Better
In 2001, Gallup conducted a poll which revealed that more Americans were afraid of snakes than they were of public speaking. Though the times have changed, you’ll typically still see snakes and reptiles near the tops of these lists. Some researchers even suggest that we are hard wired to be fearful of these scaly animals. A natural fear of reptiles would have been advantageous for our ancestors living out in the wild. A quick reaction to something venomous could literally mean the difference between life and death. Whether it’s imprinted or embedded, fear of reptiles is definitely a thing. In fact, it even has a name - herpetophobia. Hollywood gainfully exploits these feelings and grips us at the edge of our seats as we watch these cold-blooded creatures topple our cities, escape from our electrically-fortified theme parks, or run amok on our planes. However, newer research is showing us that if you put one in the classroom, a very different story will be told.
According to a report published by the American Humane Association in 2015, having a classroom pet can provide a number of measurable benefits for students. Teachers who participated in this study reported that they observed improved behavioral issues, more positive social interactions among students, and better class participation. Most notably, though, was having a classroom pet provided a sense of calm and relaxation when children were feeling stressed or anxious. The report even went as far to mention that it was particularly valuable for students with learning differences. We know that stress and anxiety greatly impacts the brain’s ability to learn and retain information. When you are maxed out emotionally, the brain goes to work and responds to the perceived threat by pumping your body full of hormones to allow you to “fight or flight” your way out of the situation. In those moments, your brain is not so concerned about learning the state capitals. The study demonstrated that having an animal present in the classroom could actually reduce stress and improve the potential for learning.
Fortune Academy has long believed in the power of having therapeutic animals within our four walls. Astro, our current beloved four-legged furry faculty, is a local celebrity and is revered by our students. But he’s a dog, and he’s fluffy, and loves his tummy rubbed. Of course his cuddles can soften the sharpest of nerves! But what about a bearded dragon that’s covered in thorny scales and clambers with villainy? Could a cold-blooded lizard warm our hearts and lower our anxieties? Enter, Khaleesi - our little lady lizard.
As it turns out, bearded dragons have become surprisingly popular classroom animals over the past few years. They may be an unorthodox pick, but we’re discovering why so many others have adopted them into their classrooms. Despite it’s appearance (this thing is seriously covered in spikey scales) bearded dragons actually like to be held and pet. This comes as a surprise to many, including our students. Dragons are naturally chill and once they form a bond with a student, they have no reservations about climbing up a sleeve and taking a nap. Khaleesi gives our students a sense of responsibility and focus when they are handling her. She subtly redirects their attention back to the present. It’s actually quite remarkable. Even for the students who don’t wish to handle her, she still provides moments of humor to liven the feeling in the room. She’ll typically be seen with a small towel underneath her just in case nature calls. Dr. Beth Tulbert uses those moments, along with many others involving Khaleesi, as metaphor to teach her students important life lessons. Everything from perseverance, responsibility, taking on challenges, overcoming fear - Khaleesi is opening up meaningful conversations with our kids that our teachers are eager to lead.
Soft, cuddly, warm - Khaleesi is factually none of these things. She isn’t your obvious therapy animal. For some, she even represents an identifiable primal fear. But in even just a few short weeks, she is adding dimension to our classrooms. She has been embraced by most, but even those who keep their distance are benefitting from her presence. She, like chocolate, seems to make everything better for our students.