By Laura Wheeler, Nottingham School
Meet Winnie the therapy dog! Nottingham School’s newest staff member and SEL advocate, who happens to have four legs and doesn’t speak…. but he does listen quite well. This furry friend has been an integral part of our SEL efforts at Nottingham School during the 2021-2022 school year.
One thing is certain for schools as we emerge from the pandemic: we need opportunities to foster human connection, and to prioritize the mental health and wellness of our students and staff. Humans are social beings that need and deserve a sense of belonging and we recognize that building opportunities for those connections is at the foundation of our SEL needs to support students and staff. Nottingham School has always been known for our warm and welcoming culture, so it was not surprising that our students, staff, and families made Winnie feel right at home as he joined our community.
Winnie is a six-year-old Golden Retriever that was adopted by Nottingham School’s middle school counselor, Laura Wheeler in 2021 at the age of 5, when his original family needed to re-home him. Laura quickly recognized that Winnie’s calm temperament and empathetic spirit could be really beneficial in her role as a school counselor and pursued therapy dog certification with him over the summer months. Winnie completed his testing and certification in October 2021, and with the support of administration and the school board, Nottingham School welcomed Winnie as part of the school community in February 2022.
Nottingham School utilizes an integrated approach to social emotional learning that goes far beyond a box of curriculum or a classroom lesson. We believe that SEL exists in every interaction within a school day, and we have focused on integrating the five core CASEL competencies into our classrooms and entire building. The school counselors and a dedicated group of staff have formed an SEL committee that have mapped out a plan for integrating SEL K-8 and explicitly teaching and modeling core social and emotional learning competencies across all settings. Introducing a therapy dog to our school was just one of many ways that we support the social and emotional needs of our students and staff, and Winnie was excited for the challenge.
Therapy dogs are a social equalizer in every setting, bringing staff and students together as they share affection with Winnie and share stories about their own animals. Winnie can be found at bus duty greeting students, monitoring the hallways, participating in reading groups, visiting Morning Meeting, playing at recess, reinforcing behavior success plans, and offering a quiet supportive snuggle to students that need some support. Classroom teachers and interventionists have the opportunity to sign up for visits or activities with Winnie, and when he isn’t scheduled he follows Mrs. Wheeler throughout the school offering impromptu smiles and care to all who encounter him.
Winnie has quickly become more than a beloved furry friend at Nottingham School. He models and provides opportunities to practice emotional regulation, responsible decision making, self-awareness, and social awareness. Winnie has also provided exciting writing prompts in classroom lessons, and is a non-judgmental listener to young readers. Social and emotional learning is fostered in every one of his interactions with students and staff, and Winnie has become an important piece of our foundation of SEL in our building.
If you would like to learn more about integrating a therapy dog program at your school, please feel free to reach out to us at Nottingham School and we would be happy to share our resources with you.