There was an emotional shift in the room—not toward pity, but toward compassion, understanding and then empowerment.
“Playful” and “energetic” can describe both a puppy and a young child. Both enjoy toys, running and being close to the ones they love. An estimated 70 percent of school aged children have pets, making contemporary American children more likely to live with a pet than with both parents. It’s not surprising that many young children describe their pets as family members and confidants.
But how do these relationships impact children’s social development? Might kids readily connect with companion animals because they see parts of themselves mirrored back in their playful, dependent and sometimes mischievous animal “friends”? What if human-animal connections were incorporated into classroom activities aimed at aiding children’s social and emotional development?
These are the questions that prompted Jennie Warmouth (PhD ‘17) to initiate a partnership between her class at Spruce Elementary School with Lynnwood’s Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).
Each week beginning in 2004, the students in Warmouth’s class have helped publish online pet advertisements for a difficult-to-place dog or cat. Warmouth teaches her students to read and analyze the pets’ veterinarian notes and intake documents before writing a descriptive paragraph promoting the animal’s adoption. Warmouth designed the program to capture her students’ interest and supplement her district’s reading and writing curricula, but the impact has run deeper than she expected.
“Kids in my class started forsaking birthday parties, asking their friends to donate needed items to the animal shelter instead. They began helping animals in the community and helping each other,” she said. “It was interesting. I was deeply involved in the work but also began to wonder about the theories underpinning the phenomenon I was witnessing.”
In 2008, as she watched her students seem to grow more empathetic and connected as a result of writing the animal profiles, Warmouth attended a University of Washington seminar on compassion with the Dalai Lama and Andy Meltzoff, an affiliate faculty member in the College of Education.
“I was excited to learn that there was a scientific brain basis for the empathetic responses I was witnessing,” she said.
An email to Meltzoff resulted in her applying to the College of Education.
During her PhD in educational psychology, Warmouth worked with Professor Brinda Jegatheesan in human-animal interaction studies. Jegatheesan helped her create a plan to continue her classroom work as a teacher and learn how, as a researcher, to capture and document her students’ socio-emotional responses to the shelter animals and qualitatively measure their empathetic growth for her dissertation.
Her students vicariously assumed the animal’s perspective as they wrote. The children imagined what it would be like to be displaced, homeless and scared. They began to analyze more deeply the reasons behind adverse social reactions, such as why a frightened dog might bite.
“The kids began to relate a dog’s prior experiences with its current behaviors and, in doing so, began to better understand the complexities of human behavior,” Warmouth explained. “So with children who might be unfriendly or defensive, they began to look more deeply at that person’s experience and consider why they may have come to that place in their socialization.”
With many of her students facing their own sensitive or traumatic situations—which aren’t typically part of classroom conversations—talking about issues the animals faced provided an opportunity to learn language that enabled them to better understand and talk about those experiences without feeling so exposed.
She described a girl who asked about the word “abandoned” while reading a dog’s biography.
“I explained that it’s when you’ve been left by your caregivers, and she said, ‘Oh, I guess that’s what happened to me.’”
Not only did the student learn the word for the thing she thought she alone had experienced, Warmouth said the student’s experience shifted as she was given an opportunity to provide meaningful leadership that day by sharing her “insider’s perspective” as the class collaborated to speak through writing on behalf of the dog.
“There was an emotional shift in the room—not toward pity, but toward compassion, understanding and then empowerment because she was able to take that and say, ‘I know what that’s like, and here’s what I think that dog would want us to say about his experience,’” Warmouth said.
The teaching methods and compassion inspired in her students recently contributed to Warmouth being chosen to receive the 2018 Patsy Collins Award for Excellence in Education, Environment and Community.
Beyond teaching full time at Spruce Elementary, Warmouth also teaches a master’s level course in literacy at Seattle Pacific University and conducts other research.
Warmouth works as a member of the research advisory board for The Measuring Empathy Collaborative Assessment Project (MECAP)—a two-year initiative involving the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Aquarium and Point Defiance Zoo that aims to redefine how children experience animal exhibits through empathy driven educational outcomes.
This fall, Warmouth accepted another two-and-a-half-year position with the zoos to focus on animal welfare and was also appointed to the PAWS board of directors.
Despite Warmouth’s busy schedule, the common focus and value of the various roles provides an opportunity for broader impact.
“Teaching children aged seven years helps inform my teaching of teachers to teach early literacy and all of that also informs my research because it, too, is focused on children’s development in that age band.”
She wants to publish her research in a book before the children she began working with in 2014 are grown up.
“It’s relevant, and no one else has really covered this topic in this way yet,” she said. “It’s a young field, so there’s a lot left to be discovered and figured out about how kids develop empathy and whether or not animals can partner in that process.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications