Cute and Calming: Animals at FCPS Help Students Unwind

By Office of Communication and Community Relations
May 23, 2022

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Chickens, alpacas, and mini horses, oh my! Across Fairfax County Public Schools, animals are helping students destress. Some schools are utilizing ESSER III funds to help pay for therapy animal visits, while others rely on teachers going above and beyond to care for and feed the animals. Students of all ages agree, spending time with animals puts a smile on their face and helps them relax. As a part of Mental Health Acceptance Month, we are highlighting a few FCPS schools connecting students with animals.

Therapy Dog at Timber Lane Elementary School

Every Wednesday afternoon, Timber Lane ES students excitedly greet Oakley the Labradoodle with big smiles and pets, and she greets them back with a tail wag and a wet kiss. Small groups of students spend about 30 minutes with Oakley and her handler Brittany, playing games, doing tricks, practicing reading, or just hanging out. Principal Benjamin Chiet worked with therapy dogs at other schools and knew it was something he wanted to implement at Timber Lane ES. 

“It's a stress reliever and a great break from academics,” Chiet said. “You can see the results in the students’ smiles. They look forward to it each week. It’s a guaranteed positive experience, and contributes beautifully to our caring culture.”

“I love going outside and playing fetch with her,” said second grader Sydney. “I feel more calm after I see Oakley and the day gets better.”

“My favorite part of seeing Oakley is doing tricks with her,” said third grader Niko. “I love when she jumps through hula hoops.”

Brittany Mraz with Heeling House Inc. says dog therapy can be helpful for students with a wide variety of needs. The students who participate at Timber Lane ES are selected based on teacher or counselor recommendations, or if they have special needs. 

“We can do activities and games to interact with every type of kid that wants to spend time with her,” Mraz said. “If they're stressed or sad she will sit with them as they talk or express their feelings. If they have autism and are working on fine motor skills and other behaviors she will be calm and sit with them as they practice giving her treats and brushing her.”

In addition to ESSER funding, Oakley’s visits are funded through a PTA partnership with Dogtopia.

Chickens and Goats at Flint Hill Elementary School

Just steps away from hallways and classrooms at Flint Hill ES is a nature oasis, complete with a butterfly garden, a turtle pond, a chicken coop, and two resident goats. 

“It's totally different out here in the courtyard. When you come out here you can just have fun!” said fifth grader Alexandra Crawford. “You forget you have a test. You forget you’re at school!”

Principal Jen Hertzberg says the animals provide emotional support to any student who needs a break during the school day. Teachers also utilize the space for mindfulness exercises. 

“If students have a rough day, they come out here and they can hold a chicken or sit with the goats. They’re able to calm themselves. It grounds them,” Hertzberg says. “It’s really amazing to watch the children interact with the animals. They are gentle creatures. I think taking care of an animal helps students think about others and our environment. I’m so proud of them.” 

The school has had chickens for several years, but the goats are new. Fifth grade teacher Jeff Bechtle helped bring in the goats through his friendship with a local farmer who lends the goats to Flint Hill ES for a few months at a time. The students help Bechtle take care of all the animals before, during, and after school. 

“It’s a good time to get away from computers and away from technology. Away from the noise,” said Bechtle. “It’s surprising to see who opens up. Kids who are very shy will walk straight up to the rooster and pick him up.”

Third grader Eleanor Chang says, “The reason I like spending time out here is sometimes I just really need a break. When I come out here, if I’m having a bad day, it changes my mood to feeling really happy.”

Sixth grader Nelle David agrees, saying, “I like to come out here because it’s very calming and the chickens are very sweet. I love to just pet them.”

Miniature Horse at Glasgow Middle School

They say good things come in small packages, and that’s certainly the case with Teddy the miniature horse. His small but mighty physique makes him the perfect companion to middle school students who need a break from class at Glasgow MS. Principal Victor Powell says he was looking to spend a part of his school’s ESSER funding on a program that would promote communication skills, physical activity, and fun. 

“Right away, the students become more engaged when they see Teddy,” Powell said. “Through this experience, I hope our students learn to trust, feel less anxious, and improve their social skills.”

Small groups of students are able to spend about 40 minutes with Teddy and his handler Shelby. They can pet him, learn about horses, and practice basic leading techniques. They also create posters about the activity to promote kindness and positivity.

Seventh grader Carlos Gonzalez Gomez said, "I liked Teddy’s mohawk! His hair was long. I really liked petting him."

Teddy’s visits are organized through a partnership with the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program. 

Alpacas at Woodson High School

High schoolers are known for constantly taking selfies, and nothing beats a selfie with an alpaca! Students at Woodson HS were beyond excited when they walked out the front doors of their school on a perfect spring day to find four alpacas munching on grass, just waiting to be pet. 

“They’re really cute. It makes me smile,” said senior Benita Norris. “It’s a really nice experience. It’s a good way to spend time with your friends for a little bit and get outside.”

Principal Carlyn Floyd said she thought this would be a fun and unique way to give the students a break from the daily stress of high school. 

“The alpacas are furry and cuddly,” Floyd said. “These animals have personality and make you laugh when you need it the most!”

Student club Woodson Minds Matter helped organize the visit from the group My Pet Alpaca. It was funded partly by ESSER funds and partly sponsored by PTSO. 

Mental Health Acceptance Month

In recognition of May as Mental Health Acceptance Month, a new webpage was created to pull together timely and important information from a variety of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) mental health resources.