With almost half of children at Cambrian Preschool in Melton West from families experiencing vulnerability, educators wanted to rethink their approach to helping children build vital school readiness skills, to aid in a smooth transition to their new environment. They found an answer in an unlikely place, and 12 months on, the results have been incredible.
The sound of children’s laughter fills the yard on a sunny afternoon at Cambrian Preschool in Melbourne’s outer west. It’s coming from a group of children playing “find the ball” with Billy, a one-year-old border collie.
A passer-by might presume Billy is only visiting the kindergarten for the day. But he’s as much a part of the program as the children themselves. Billy is a therapy dog, you see. And he has been specially trained to support the children's social and emotional development.
The idea to introduce a dog into the program came about in late 2016, when educators Vicki and Janet were looking for new ways to nurture children’s development, particularly the most vulnerable.
“Forty-eight per cent of children come to our kindergarten with some trauma,” explains Vicki, Cambrian’s lead educator.
“We see families with drug and alcohol abuse, major mental health issues and domestic violence. We also see a lot of neglect and some cases of physical abuse.”
Acutely aware that vulnerable children are likely to start school behind their peers, Vicki and Janet were searching for innovative approaches to help children build school readiness skills such as resilience, persistence, confidence, self-regulation and friendships.
After reading about some impressive cases of dogs being introduced into primary schools in areas of disadvantage, the pair started exploring the idea of getting a dog for their kindergarten.
As luck would have it, fellow educator Naomi, who teaches the four-year-old Warrwarren group and is an experienced dog trainer, was looking for a puppy for her family around the same time. So the three sat down to discuss how they could effectively incorporate Naomi’s puppy into the kindergarten program. After nutting out the finer details, Naomi agreed to train her new puppy, Billy, to join her kindergarten group.
The educators notified families, asking them to sign a consent form and welcoming any questions or concerns. Most were thrilled to discover Billy would be joining the kindergarten.
Twelve months on and Billy is a permanent fixture of the Warrwarren group. He comes to every session with Naomi and often visits the other groups, too. The children love bathing and feeding Billy, playing fetch and find the ball with him, and sitting together for a quiet cuddle. For many of them, Billy has become a best mate.
“Billy makes me so happy!” squeals five-year-old Jet. “Like 10 out of 10!” he says, holding up his 10 fingers to emphasise the point. It’s a sentiment echoed by most of Jet’s peers.
And for parents such as Jet's mum Stacey, Billy has been a godsend.
“When I first heard about Billy entering the program, I was excited because Jet interacts well with animals,” says Stacey.
Jet, who sits on the autism spectrum, uses animals as a calmer, says Stacey.
"He's able to relax a lot more with an animal. Telling him that Billy is waiting for him at kindergarten makes getting ready in the mornings a lot easier. It’s also taught Jet to share more with other kids, to take it in turns throwing the ball and to be patient.”
Naomi loves seeing how much Billy has helped Jet’s social and emotional development. But, she points out, Jet is only one example of Billy’s amazing impact.
“We had a child last year who came from a family with a lot of different issues. He wouldn’t engage with us, but when Billy was around, he would play with him, he would pat him, and they'd read stories together, so it really calmed him down.
“He wasn't very interested in doing painting or drawings at the start. But as soon as we tapped into his connection to Billy, he was excited to paint, and his artwork totally transformed. He went from creating blot paintings to being able to paint people, trees and the sun clearly for the first time.”
It’s this innate ability to bond with children that has made Billy such an integral part of the kindergarten program.
“A few times I've had children that are being quite unsettled, and he has a knack, he'll go and sit with them, and he'll calm them down by encouraging them to pat him,” says Naomi.
When Billy joined the kindergarten, a few of the children were a bit apprehensive about dogs. But Naomi says they have helped these children overcome their fear by slowly and calmly introducing Billy until they feel comfortable.
“We've had some great successes with these children. Working with Billy has reassured them that it's safe, and they're no longer frightened of dogs.”
Vicki and Naomi couldn’t be happier with Billy’s integration into their kindergarten community. It has been such a success that this year, many families have chosen the Warrwarren group because of Billy. And some families are now considering buying a puppy for home.
More than anything, Vicki and Naomi are excited to see how this friendly pup will continue to help children experiencing vulnerability prepare for a smooth transition to school.