Teaching kids to care for animals and one another

As Manager of Humane Education at the Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix, Dr. Kris Haley uses the Six Pillars of Character to teach kids about having empathy and compassion for animals – and each other. We love hearing about new applications for CHARACTER COUNTS!, so we asked Dr. Haley a few questions:

Oso, the Adorably Adoptable Dog

How long have you been working with animals? What first drew you to this field?

Even at an early age, I felt a special kinship with animals that has carried over the years. The animals have been masterful teachers for me throughout my life. What keeps me in this work is the privilege to be of service in such a significant way. What more important work is there than teaching an expanded concept of empathy to kids through the extraordinary lessons of animals? If each heart had empathy, we truly could change the world! The Six Pillars of Character, deepened with a humane dimension, can do just that!

What, for you, is the most important aspect of having good character?

Good character is a framework for life. I work with a blended model of Humane and Character Education, and the way I explain the role of each is that Character Education builds the foundation and walls of a strong and solid “house,” and Humane Education fills the inside of that wonderful house and makes it a home. Each is better because of the other.

When did you decide CHARACTER COUNTS! could help you teach kids how to care for animals?

From the moment I discovered CHARACTER COUNTS! about five years ago, I immediately made the connection. Here in the Phoenix area, many schools use CC! and the Six Pillars materials and activities in their classrooms. I sensed immediately that if I could add elements of Humane Education to the great CC! work already in place, I could better teach kindness and compassion for animals, which would quickly lead the children to a greater understanding of their relationships with each other. The addition of the Six Pillars to my presentations has been an incredible “accelerator” in terms of children’s ability to understand the true scope of the lesson.

Also, and most importantly, I immediately saw a connection between animal cruelty and bullying. There isn’t a school of which I am aware that doesn’t struggle with bullying. If we can invite the animals to help guide students to an understanding of how it is wrong to treat animals with anything other than kindness, it becomes infinitely easier to suggest that they carry that concept over into their human relationships.

As a result, I place a significant focus on this parity in my classroom presentations. Most kids will refuse to treat an animal cruelly but might not even realize when they are bullying a classmate. The animals significantly shorten the journey to that heightened awareness by helping children to immediately see the correlation between animal cruelty and bullying and why neither one is ever OK.

A Cat
3 Legs, 8 Lives, 1 Big Heart

How have you incorporated the Six Pillars into your programs?

The integration of the Six Pillars has been seamless. During classroom presentations, I use the names of the Pillars throughout, querying the students, “Are we treating this animal respectfully?” or “Is it fair to keep that rat in a cage without exercise?” And then I move to empathy: “How would YOU feel if YOU were kept in your room all day? Would that be fair to you?”

Usually I conduct a Character Education activity or lesson and then add a similar dimension that makes it a Humane Education activity or lesson. For example, with the “Folded Heart” activity, participants recall something hurtful that was said to them or another person and fold a paper heart. The folds form “scars” on the paper, illustrating that while we can take back hurtful statements, the scars remain. I added a photo of an animal and did the activity a second time, illustrating that there’s not much difference between our hearts and animal’s hearts when it comes to being treated unkindly.

Then, as we unfold the heart, we discuss things that people say or do to heal those scars. At the conclusion of the activity, I hold the heart and animal photo side by side and we discuss how we are really not so different from our animal friends. I have conducted that activity for virtually every age group, from preschool to seniors, and the reaction is the same. It is a wonderful, sustained lesson. And, once again, it affords me the opportunity to discuss bullying and its correlation with animal cruelty.

Finally, the Six Pillars are a featured part of our summer camp, Camp Compassion. We have two three-day camp sessions in June, which are repeated in July. An individual Pillar is assigned to each day, and we couple each Pillar with a group of animals. For example, Day 1 may be SHELTER ANIMAL DAY and our Pillar may be RESPECT. Day 2 might be FARM ANIMAL DAY and our Pillar might be FAIRNESS. Our last day is always CITIZENSHIP DAY, in which we talk about our responsibilities as good global citizens with regard to all of the animal groups we’ve discussed over the previous five days.

By definition, Humane Education has three components. In addition to our relationships with animals, it is also about our relationships with Earth and with each other. Character Education and, in particular the Six Pillars of Character, provides a wonderful way to move back and forth among those three components.

Adorably Adoptable RabbitAdorably Adoptable Rabbit

How has using CHARACTER COUNTS! affected the children’s consideration and treatment of animals?

Because most of the children/schools we visit already have an understanding of the Six Pillars, we can springboard from a common denominator that blends beautifully with Humane Education. And because of that rich understanding, students immediately know what we mean when we ask why it is important to be respectful to animals or to assume responsibility for their wellness. Blending the two types of framework, Humane and Character Education principles, has really optimized the integration of the individual lessons of each.

Does it affect how the children treat each other?

I mentioned this a bit earlier – but because we invite discussion of animals into the activity, through their stories and lessons, kids see immediately that cruelty is not an option – and certainly not an option without consequence – and they arrive at this conclusion very quickly when discussing animals. When the discussion shifts to their own relationships, it actually takes a bit longer, but the light bulb does go on once they make the connection between cruelty and bullying. You can literally see in their eyes, that moment when they really “get it.”

You must see many mistreated animals at the Humane Society. How do you maintain a positive attitude?

Sometimes the stream seems endless. And in that definition of mistreated, we must include those who are surrendered through no fault of their own. Our staff and volunteers do an extraordinary job caring for the animals who come through our doors, and our veterinary team is unequivocally the best there is. But the animals are still homeless, and each and every person is focused on the common goal of finding every one of them a forever-home.

Being part of a team that can change the lives of animals and the people with whom they will find love is the highest level of service I can imagine. I am privileged to do this work. Is it easy sometimes to feel that we can’t possibly make a difference when 44,000 are coming through our doors every year? Yes. But then I remember the Starfish Story – and smile because I know, “I made a difference for that one!”

The Starfish StoryAZ Humane Society poster
Original Story by: Loren Eisley

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said… “I made a difference for that one.”

* Interested in incorporating CHARACTER COUNTS! into your education efforts? Check out our Character Development Seminars and Webinars.

5 thoughts on “Teaching kids to care for animals and one another”

  1. Excellent article. Now I can blend humane ed with character counts in my classroom. Thank you for planting a great idea.

  2. Great article! The concept of teaching character and empathy through the compassion that kids have for their pets is a great idea!

  3. Hats down to Dr Haley and her team from a country where compassion and empathy are still the exception to the rule. This world needs zillions of you!

  4. Does anyone know the name of the book that has the students folding hearts as mentioned above and then explaining it as a permanent crease in someone;’s heart???? I NEED that book!

  5. Stacey,
    That activity can be found in the training manual that participants are given in the Character Development Seminars. If you can’t find it call the national office.

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