Sometimes a wet nose, a lick and a quiet cuddle with a therapy dog can make all the difference to a student's ability to learn and their mental health.
Students and staff at Ballarat's Berry Street school know well the difference that therapy dogs make in the classroom. Two dogs - golden retriever Phoebe and labradoodle Poppy - are much loved members of the school community with at least one, and sometimes both, on campus each day.
On Thursday, education minister James Merlino announced extra mental health funding for schools, who will be free to decide how best to spend it to benefit their students.
Included on the "menu" of evidence-based programs and mental health support initiatives is therapy dogs and Berry Street assistant principal Damian McKee is happy to be leading the pack having had a therapy dog in the classroom for more than four years.
"There's specific research about how dogs and animal therapy can actually lead to better learning outcomes for kids," he said.
"Dogs are non-judgmental and they are comforting which are really important aspects of the learning environment. Children can actually become emotionally engaged with the dog and this in turn reduces the barriers to learning.
"We've had kids who are not in control of their emotions that, when placed in the non-judgmental presence of a dog it immediately calms them."
Physiologically, patting a dog has been shown to release the feel-good hormones dopamine and seratonin which help to create positive change within the child.
"We have had kids that don't trust adults, yet build trust with the animal and the animal has trust in us. "When the children become emotionally engaged with the dog, it decreases their barriers to learning/"
Phoebe started her important work at Berry Street when she was about 18 months old and, more than four years later, is somewhat of a "floor rug" according to Mr McKee.
"She just lies there, while Poppy is a bit neurotic, but they both just love to be patted," he said.
"Talking about mental health and learning within schools, to have as much help as we can in the classroom is a great benefit to each of the kids," he said.
Our new $200 million Schools Mental Health Fund and Menu has launched to help Victorian government schools access programs and interventions to support their students' mental health and wellbeing. To find out more visit https://t.co/qYiD2iQHOfpic.twitter.com/iqW4jrp4Fw— DET (@DETVic) October 14, 2021
Therapy dogs are just one of the mental health tools available as part of the $200m Schools Mental Health Fund, which will roll out in regional schools in 2022 and in Melbourne in 2023.
"Now more than ever, our kids need support both at home and at school to make sure their wellbeing is on track. These tailored initiatives will help keep Victorian students happy and healthy, so they can focus on succeeding in their learning as we emerge from the pandemic," Mr Merlino said.
"Our schools play a central role in the development of every young Victorian - that's why it is so important they take a leadership role in supporting student mental health."
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Schools will be able to select from an online menu across three tiers of intervention. Tier one includes positive mental health promotion, mental first aid, anti-bullying programs and therapy dogs as well as mental health literacy training to ensure mental health issues are addressed early.
Tier Two features early intervention and cohort-specific initiatives including cross-cultural responsiveness training, Arts Therapy or trauma informed care, while tier three is targeted support for those experiencing mental health issues.
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