Compassion for Animals: A Vital Part of Your Character Education Program
By Mary Uenking, TeachKind Assistant, Education and Outreach for PETA
Many curricula already include units about animals with lessons on their natural habitats, foods they eat, and other basic characteristics. But teachers shouldn’t miss the opportunity to engage students in building some empathy while you're at it! Kids care about animals and want to take action to help them, so by extending these lessons to include compassion for them and concrete ways students can improve the lives of animals, you're able to teach engaging academic content while fostering the development of good character in students at the same time. Here at TeachKind, PETA's humane education division, we call that "feeding two birds with one scone."
Character education can easily be extended to incorporate the values of respect and responsibility toward animals. For example, many of the goals outlined in Character.org's 11 Principles Framework can be achieved by broadening our scope of compassion to include all sentient beings, not just those who look and behave like us. Teachers and school leaders could do the following:
- Integrate lessons on compassion for animals into the curriculum of every grade level and core subject area, making your approach to developing character "comprehensive, intentional, and proactive" (Principle 3).
- Create a "caring community" (Principle 4) by promoting kindness to all living, feeling beings in your anti-bullying efforts and empowering students to report abuse, regardless of the victim's species.
- Provide students with "opportunities for moral action" (Principle 5) by working on projects to help animals in the community (i.e., collecting blankets and toys for the local animal shelter), having students write letters to local legislators urging them to enact animal-friendly laws (i.e., a tethering ban), and otherwise promoting student activism on real world issues.
THE BENEFITS OF HUMANE EDUCATION
Promote Prosocial Behavior
Children who are taught empathy for animals tend to be more empathetic toward their peers.1,2 By incorporating humane education, teachers have an opportunity to reach kids before they start to engage in antisocial or violent behavior. Humane education is best designed as a multitiered approach in which empathy training is delivered to the whole student population in the first tier. Mental health professionals support students who have witnessed animal abuse in the second tier. Leaders conduct interventions and monitor students who have documented histories of violent or otherwise abusive behavior toward animals or their peers in the third tier.
Motivate Students Academically
Kids are naturally interested in animals, and they're academically motivated when lessons include information on ways to help them. Many reluctant learners with disruptive behavior issues become some of the fiercest champions for animals after learning that they need their help. Then they channel that passion into reading books about animals, researching, and writing reports on ways people can help them, and otherwise applying their academic skills in authentic ways—sometimes even during their free time! Because of children's innate compassion for animals, English language learners and special needs students can be engaged and inspired to work hard at communicating a clear message to help them verbally or in writing.
Reduce Violence in the School Community
While many educators are aware that serial killers3 and school shooters4,5 tend to have a history of cruelty to animals, they must also recognize that it's common for young people to have witnessed animal abuse,6,7,8,9 that seeing such abuse is a form of trauma,10 and that children who've observed acts of cruelty to animals are more likely to abuse animals themselves.11,12,13,14 The most egregious cases of cruelty to animals make headlines, but many children encounter animal abuse that goes unreported. This is why it's urgent that schools implement preventive measures such as incorporating humane education for all students, rather than merely reacting to reported incidents of cruelty committed by students.
Addressing youth violence against animals is imperative—not only for the safety and well-being of the animals in your community but also for the mental health and academic success of your students. Research indicates that a large proportion of young people have witnessed animal abuse,15,16,17,18 meaning that this lesser-known, but still very real form of childhood trauma, is much more pervasive than most educators realize and needs to be addressed. Dr. Barbara Boat, director of the Program on Childhood Trauma and Maltreatment at the University of Cincinnati, warns, "Exposure to animal cruelty can have a significant impact on the developing child, including promoting desensitization and decreasing empathy … and leading to the imitation of abusive behaviors." It's not only kids who've committed egregious crimes who need lessons in compassion for animals—to prevent tragedies from taking place in your school community, educators must teach all students to be kind to animals, using a multitiered approach.
TEACHING COMPASSION DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Especially now as we navigate these unprecedented times, children should be encouraged to develop their problem-solving skills, be actively aware of their own well-being, and flex their empathy muscles. With so much uncertainty in the world, it's important for kids to know that some things are still within their control—like how they treat others, including animals. These foundational skills can be cultivated by using TeachKind resources in the classroom, virtually, or at home.
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, the five core competencies of social and emotional learning are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Lessons that focus on compassion for animals can not only strengthen these competencies and help shape students into responsible, critical-thinking, empathetic young people but also make teachers' jobs easier in a time when engaging them is especially difficult. Work smarter, not harder, and tap into your students' natural interest in animals to aid them in developing good character.
Statistics show that kids who hurt animals might be on a dangerous path leading to worse behavior if not corrected. But the opposite of this profound fact is also true—when young children learn kindness for animals, they take a key step toward rejecting all violence, bullying, and hatred in their teen years and beyond.
Since TeachKind regularly receives reports of cruelty to animals perpetrated by young people across the U.S., we have created "Empathy Now," a step-by-step guide that assists schools in addressing these incidents within their communities and in implementing humane education to help prevent future tragedies. This tool can guide your school district's response to an incident of cruelty to animals, as well as helping you proactively implement humane education across the board.
Let's resolve to make it a year-round priority to have conversations on reducing violence and to explore new ways of empowering our students to exhibit excellent character and stand up to bullies, no matter the victim's species.
Visit TeachKind.org for free lessons and activities to supplement your character education efforts, and contact us at Info@teachkind.org for more guidance.
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11Thompson & Gullone.
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13Baldry, A.C. (2003). Animal abuse and exposure to interparental violence in Italian youth. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(3), 258–281.
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15Thompson & Gullone.
17Gullone & Robertson.