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Unleashing innovations at UC Irvine’s Child Development School

Pet therapy resonates with ADHD children

April 10, 2014
Child Development School

The kids at the Child Development School at UC Irvine love their pal Rusty, who would win a school popularity contest hands down if someone took a vote.

They’re also crazy about Carl, another friend at the innovative school. “Everybody wants to play with Carl,” says the school’s director, Sabrina Schuck, PhD.

Actually, both Rusty and Carl have little in common with their playmates. Rusty is a dog and Carl is a robot. But each plays an important role at the school, where teachers use a reward system to reinforce the positive behavior of students, most of whom have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (known as ADHD) , autism or other neuro-developmental conditions.

In Rusty’s case, the reward takes the form of petting, playing and giving big hugs. A typical lesson goes something like this: Rusty, a sweet-tempered Golden Retriever, sits on a dog bed in the classroom while a group of 8- and 9-year-olds, seated at a table nearby, talks with a teacher about social skills. (“Were you angry with anyone today? What did you do?”) Eventually, each child takes a turn sitting on the floor with Rusty, petting her, scratching her head, occasionally curling up next to her. Rusty takes it all in stride.

“All of these kids have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” says Schuck, as she watches from behind a two-way mirror. “But when they’re with Rusty, they’re calm and engaged.”

The 1st-through-6th-grade school, the only one of its kind in the region, has 81 students and will begin accepting 7th graders on the Irvine campus in the fall of 2014. Most of the children have behaviors that make it difficult for them to succeed in traditional school: They may be impulsive, or unable to concentrate, or distracted. The school works with them and their parents to help them return to the typical school setting as quickly as possible.

Schuck knows pet therapy is a plus for these students: She led a four-year, $2.2-million study, which showed that children with ADHD who interacted with pets improved their social skills and controlled their symptoms.

When they behave well, they get more face time with Rusty or other therapy dogs that visit the school. “We constantly tell them when they’re doing things right. These kids need more positive feedback than other students,” says Schuck, an assistant clinical professor in the UC Irvine School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics.   

Carl the robot, another playtime perk for children who behave well, also offers feedback. The surface of its body is covered with LED lights that display in various colors when the robot is touched or petted. The goal is for the user to get comfortable interacting with an object that responds to his or her actions. Designed by UC Irvine cognitive scientist Jeff Krichmar, PhD, Carl is aimed at improving relationships and social engagement in children with autism or other developmental disorders.

The Child Development School was founded in the 1980s with the premise that behavioral interventions could produce results with or without medication in children with developmental problems such as autism and attention deficit disorders. That premise remains the heart of the school's program, which focuses on both the child and the family.  

The program, directed by the Department of Pediatrics, collaborates with the Orange County Healthcare Agency. “In a traditional school setting, these kids have trouble making friends,” Schuck says. "They have difficulty regulating their emotions. Many have temper tantrums. They talk too much in class and get kicked out.”

The Child Development School offers a different approach, with the overarching goal of helping students reach their social, emotional and academic potential.

“We help children, and their parents, build the skills that will prepare a child for the world,” she says. “These kids have so much potential. We want to unlock it.”

For more information about the school program or to schedule a tour, call 949-824-2343.


— Rosemary McClure, UCI Health Marketing & Communications