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The Use of Equine-Assisted Activities to Support Learning in Children with Special Educational Needs Research Project

Research Project Abstract – The Use of Equine-Assisted Activities to Support Learning in Children with Special Educational Needs

Caitriona Whelan

There exists considerable research indicating positive results from animal interaction with children, particularly children with special educational needs. These positive results exist across a number of practice areas such as physiotherapy, psychology, occupational therapy and speech and language development. Given the reported benefits, is there a use for animals in an educational context? Many of the benefits described by other practitioners are those that meet the objectives of the Irish Department of Education Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum, such as improved coping skills and increased expression and communication.

This research project followed the progress of 7 children, six diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder and one child diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, as they followed a 6-week equine-assisted activity (EAA) programme aimed to help children achieve objectives of the SPHE curriculum, namely improved coping skills, greater independence and increased expression. Pre- and post-intervention questionnaires consisting of open and closed questions were given to 2 teachers and 1 parent involved with each child.

The resulting quantitative and qualitative output from these questionnaires and facilitator notes from each session were used to determine if the objectives from the SPHE curriculum were achieved by the sessions. Qualitative findings indicate that there were positive changes for each child, in particular changes which fulfil SPHE objectives around coping skills. However quantitative findings did not show any distinct pattern for attaining objectives for the group as a whole. Given the individuality of each child and short research period, a longer study with a larger sample size is necessary to provide more conclusive evidence.

Sample References

Bass, M. M, Duchowny, C. A. & Liabre, M. M. (2009). The effect of therapeutic horseback riding on social functioning in children with autism. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 39, 1261-1267.

Government of Ireland (1999). Primary School Curriculum Social, Personal and Health Education. Dublin: Stationary Office.

Macauley, B. & Gutierrez, K. (2004). The effectiveness of hippotherapy for children with language-learning disabilities. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 25, 205-217.

Melson, G. & Fine, A. (2006). Animals in the Lives of Children. In A.H. Fine, (Ed.), Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. London: Academic Press.

Sams, M., Fortney, E., & Willenbring, S. (2006). Occupational therapy incorporating animals for children with autism: A pilot investigation. American Occupational Therapy Association, 60 (3), 268-274.

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