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Attitudes In ReverseĀ® AIR Attitudes In ReverseĀ® AIR Dogs: Paws for MindsTM Program Supports Children, Helps Prevent School Refusal

PRINCETON, NJ, May 6, 2023 – Anxiety, depression and learning differences, such as dyslexia, in children could lead to school refusal. Traumatic situations at school, such as being bullied and witnessing or directly experiencing violence, are also common factors associated with children’s protesting about getting on a school bus or even out of bed. Attitudes In Reverse® (AIR®) offers a unique, highly effective program that helps students feel comfortable going to school and sharing fear and other difficult emotions.

 

The AIR Dogs: Paws for MindsTM Program was launched in 2019 in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District and is now in nine districts across New Jersey and in Pennsbury, PA. Tricia Baker, AIR’s Co-founder and Program Director, as well as a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed, trains teams of school faculty/staff and their dogs. Baker expects to certify nearly 40 new teams at the end of this school year.

 

“Whether a student is having an occasional difficult day; experiencing ongoing depression, anxiety or other challenges; or coping with the tragedy of a suicide or other incident, the AIR Dog Therapy teams are making a tremendous positive impact on their lives,” Baker said.

 

School refusal is not necessarily avoiding school altogether. Some children begin school days and have difficulty staying there. They may frequently ask to see the school nurse or, in the case of middle and high school students, skip certain classes or leave before the end of the school day.

 

“Knowing that a dog and a compassionate staff member are available to offer comfort and help relieve stress has been a huge benefit for the students in the schools with this program. Even if they’re not immediately ready to talk about their feelings, the dogs’ presence is extremely helpful,” Baker said. She shared one of many powerful stories of a student who was clearly distraught, but refused to talk to a counselor. After less than five minutes of interacting with a dog, she stopped crying and agreed to meet with a counselor.

 

Therapy Dogs Also Participate in AIR’s Educational Programs

As the rates of depression and suicidal ideation and behavior among youth have increased significantly in recent years, Baker developed age-appropriate versions of mental health and suicide prevention programs. Baker’s and other AIR volunteers’ certified therapy dogs are always present, making the programs more interactive and memorable and having a long-term impact.

 

During the past couple of years, an increasing number of elementary schools throughout the state have been requesting presentations of the newer programs: Miki & Friends: Exploring Emotions through the Eyes of Dogs for children in kindergarten through fourth grade and Mental Health is in the AIR Toolkit for fourth through sixth graders.

 

Miki & Friends is an interactive story about dogs "going to school" and experiencing different situations that precipitate emotional responses. Feelings are discussed, as well as options for how students would respond to the situations in the story.

 

“Talking about how even animals show their emotions was a way for students to validate their own emotions. Meeting a real therapy dog and allowing to pet him was a first for many of our students,” said an elementary school teacher about this program. Another teacher commented, “This was the perfect way to help our kids feel a sense of ‘normalcy’ at school.”

 

Mental Health is in the AIR is a relaxed, interactive discussion about brain health. “We discuss different coping mechanisms to help students be resilient and have healthy brains. We also talk about a ‘feelings crisis,’ when students feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts and feelings,” Baker explained.

 

For older students, as well as parents, Baker presents the original program, Coming Up for AIR. In addition to discussing coping mechanisms, she explains the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders; the possible consequences of not getting treatment, which include suicide; and the warning signs of suicidal ideation and behavior. “Between 17 and 50% of middle and high school and college students share through confidential surveys that they are struggling or are concerned about a friend. The surveys are given to the school counselors so they can connect with the students and help them get the support they need,” Baker explained.

 

“Some students also verbally share their mental health struggles as they pet the dogs following the presentations,” Baker added. “The dogs’ impact is amazing. They are breaking the barriers of shame, fear and embarrassment by making people feel comfortable opening up about their mental and emotional difficulties. It’s a vitally important first step for individuals to seek the support they need, whether it’s as simple as knowing they have someone to confide in and seek comfort from, or complex and chronic and, therefore, requiring clinical treatment.”

 

AIR also has a Spanish program for English learners in seventh through 12th grades.

 

Attitudes In Reverse® (AIR®) was established by Tricia, Kurt and Katelyn Baker of Plainsboro, NJ, in 2010, soon after their son/brother Kenny died by suicide following a long battle against severe depression and anxiety. Their mission is to save lives by educating students about mental health, related disorders and suicide prevention. Since January 2010, they have presented to more than 150,000 students in elementary, middle and high schools and colleges in New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Missouri, Texas and Arizona. AIR includes the AIR Dogs: Paws for MindsTM program, bringing dogs into schools to help students de-stress and engage in the conversation about mental health. In addition, AIR offers a lunch-and-learn program for businesses. For more information about AIR, please visit www.air.ngo or call 609-945-3200.

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