Rabbits help students understand emotion at Forest Dale Elementary

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Carmel’s Forest Dale Elementary has had a special visitor with a little hop in his step for much of the school year.

Cookie, a miniature lop cross domesticated rabbit, has been visiting two groups of five third-grade students every Friday since September 2018 as part of an animal assistance therapy and education pilot program. The rabbit is used in exercises to help the students understand emotion and body language.

The male bunny sits in the middle of a circle as the students meet with Forest Dale’s two social workers, Shannon Ednie-Bassett and Angelica Niehans, and Lindsay Fisher, owner of Kokomo-based Wrangler & Friends, which provides the animals. Mini lops are typically docile and affectionate rabbits with floppy ears.

The plan is to have three groups of eight students in the 2019-20 school year.

“You want to make sure you bring the same animal because the kids get to know the animal and bond,” Fisher said. “You have to make sure (the rabbits) can handle the stress if the kids are being too loud. You have to make sure (the rabbits) are friendly and approachable, that they are calm and easy to handle and don’t have an aggressive behavior.”

The weekly lessons are designed to help students regulate their emotions, improve social skills and develop productive coping skills at school and home.

Third-grader Anna Gullett said the sessions have been helpful.

“It helps me understand the bunny’s perspective and that no perspective is more important than the other,” Gullett said. “Whenever my class gets really loud,  my teacher makes an annoyed look and puts her hands on her face. She’s probably thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this class?’ So, I try to be quieter and help her.”

In addition to helping understand body language, Gullett has another reason for enjoying the sessions.

“Bunnies are really cute, too,” she said.

Students in the program were selected by students, parents and the two social workers.

“It’s a non-threatening way for them to practice observing behavior and noticing how their behavior affects other people,” Ednie-Bassett said. “The bunny is really reactive to their noise level and their body movement, so they get immediate feedback, ‘I need to calm my body and voice,’ and that translates to other people. We are getting feedback from teachers and parents that the kids are taking those skills and translating them into the classroom and home.”

The program is partially funded by the Indiana School Social Work Association and Forest Dale’s PTO.

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