Reflecting back on my favorite teachers in grade school, I realize that most of them had class pets. Somehow, those teachers just seemed more fun and I actually looked forward to being in their classes.
So I decided to get a class pet of my own. I felt that the responsibility of daily feeding, plus the potential for fostering the pet over breaks, would be a great way to help my students with EBD grow, mature, and increase their positive behaviors. I also knew they would love the opportunity to play with something other than a board game (LIFE is an amazing game to reward students’ work on reading and basic computation skills, by the way!).
During our fall break, I purchased a guinea pig that, at least according to the salesperson, may have his own form of EBD. He is very active and loves to randomly run around his cage bucking like a bull and knocking things over. I was told he even “bullied” others to get to the Timothy Hay he loves so much. I instantly knew that he was the perfect pet for my students!
I introduced the guinea pig to the class last Monday and allowed them to pick its name (“Ricky-Dude”). We started with him placed in the back of the room, but I quickly found out that was a big mistake. Within two hours, my students were unable to focus due to the random noises he made scurrying around his new cage. Their constant turning around and getting up to look at the little guy became too much for me to handle. I moved him to our cool-down room next door, so he could have some peace and I could still teach. At first the kids acted out because they were mad at this decision, but eventually things improved.
I decided to use Ricky-Dude as a therapy tool for when students were in crisis, as well as a reward for good behavior: “If you get three points, you get to give RD a piece of celery—and with seven points, you can hold him for a few minutes at the end of the day.” I also keep a stash of carrots in my desk for when a student needs cool-down time. I’ll have the student take a carrot over to RD, and while he’s feeding him, talk things out with me—or as I have learned they prefer, with the guinea pig itself.
For example, one of my most explosive students came to school Friday in a very bad mood. I knew she was struggling to maintain control because she simply sat at her desk and would not speak to anyone; this was a red flag because she is the class alpha student and social butterfly. After many failed attempts to get her to talk to me, I asked if she wanted some “me time.” She simply nodded, so we got RD’s food and I let her stay with him for the first 30 minutes of the day.
When I checked on her, I saw her sitting in a chair, piece of celery in hand, pouring her heart out to Ricky-Dude. As soon as she realized I was there, she stopped. When I asked why, she said, “Mr. Williams, you just won’t get it, but he does. I just know he does. Can we be alone now?” I smiled and went back to the other students—leaving the door open so I could still keep an eye on her.
I never realized how much a six-inch-long rodent could help my students and myself, but I am truly thankful for Ricky-Dude. I am so very glad that my students now have that one “person” they can tell anything to without fear.
Now if only I, the teacher, can establish that same relationship over the coming months. I too may need some “me time” with RD to learn his secrets. Maybe it’s the whiskers?