Hens help pupils to crack life's code
A school project in a highly-populated, disadvantaged area shows the benefits of access to nature and animal care, writes Katherine Donnelly
One of the biggest responsibilities of an education system is to support children to overcome any disadvantage in their young lives so that their abilities can shine through.
Various programmes, such as the Delivering Equality of Opportunity Schools (DEIS), seek to level the playing field. Supports like extra teachers, psychologists and breakfast and homework clubs achieve varying degrees of success.
In the most seriously disadvantaged urban communities, categorised as DEIS Urban Band 1, where children's needs are most complex, including a greater prevalence of behavioural difficulties, the problems are most intractable.
A new study at a DEIS Urban Band 1 primary school in Dublin offers food for thought. It was carried by one of its own teachers, Ciara Gilligan, for her MEd thesis at Dublin City University.
The project at Knockmore Junior NS, Killinarden, Tallaght came about after Gilligan suggested, in spring of last year, that they avail of a programme through which fertilised chicken eggs, in incubators, are brought into schools so that pupils can see them being hatched. It is run by a Co Kilkenny company called Cock-a-doodle-doo.
The incubators arrive in a school about two weeks before the eggs hatch and, usually, the baby chicks are returned.
One of the four Knockmore eggs didn't hatch, another turned into an aggressive cockerel, and was returned. But, having seen some immediate benefits, not least an improvement in pupil punctuality, the then principal, Chris Meehan decided to keep the two hen chicks, named Anna and Elsa by the children.
"We became attached to them," says Gilligan, who, at the time, was also searching for an idea for her thesis. It presented itself: to explore whether involvement in caring for hens in school presents benefits for children in terms of social, emotional, behavioural or educational development, and if so, in what ways.
So Anna and Elsa made their home in Knockmore last summer, cared for, during the holiday period, by caretakers and teachers who live nearby. When school reopened in September, the hens were laying - usually one egg a day. The children, aged five to nine and from senior infants and second classes, took over care of the hens in the school garden. Knockmore NS is situated in a highly populated area with, according to Gilligan, little space for children's safe engagement with nature, and, what potential there is, is hindered by anti-social behaviour.
Her thesis cites a body of research acknowledging the benefits of a child's interaction with nature, including animals, on socio-emotional development.
Studies also highlight the link between socio-emotional well-being and educational attainment. She quotes an Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) 2015 report, stating that children with socio-emotional needs are vulnerable to risk of premature disengagement with the education process.
According to the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), "unmet socio-emotional needs are the greatest barrier to a child's learning."
Knockmore pupils engage with the hens through play, grooming, collecting eggs, observation, telling stories and seeking comfort and, importantly, there is a reward for work with the opportunity to sell eggs. The feedback on the positive impact on the children in areas such as co-operation, motivation, empathy, trust, attachment and relaxation is overwhelming.
In class, pupils show an enthusiasm to get their work done so they can attend to their hen duties.
However, although punctuality improved, there were no significant differences in attendance.
Other pluses include self-modification by children of their behaviour. One teacher reported a child "who is beginning to understand that her behaviour has an impact on other people and other things, through recognising that if she gets over excited, the hens get stressed and it is harder to catch them".
Children themselves identified a gradual improvement in co-operation skills.
"It's just about getting it safely and carefully into the coop, so we don't fight over it like we did at the start," said one eight-year-old.
Gilligan says the three most tangible outcomes are the building of relationships and conflict resolution skills between the children, enhanced motivation and how caring for the hens promoted relaxation and positive behaviour. The plan is for hens to become a permanent part of life in the Tallaght school.
Gilligan is critical of what she sees as a "too narrow focus" of various Department of Education interventions, such as DEIS and the Numeracy and Literacy Strategy, to tackle educational disadvantage. "Expectations set on schools to spend more time on literacy and numeracy demonstrates little reference and less time allocation to socio-emotional development as a more important life skill.
"It is a major concern that literacy and numeracy have been considered a 'quick fix' solution for children's holistic wellbeing.
"Literacy and numeracy are crucial life skills, but can the emotional health of a child depend so heavily on ability to read, write, and make calculations?"
She says it is necessary to assess whether the system has become imbalanced with focus on accountability and drive towards literacy and numeracy, rather than addressing mental health concerns with more holistic strategies and longer-term outcomes.