Methods: This study used video data of 50 sixth- and seventh-grade students obtained from a state-approved private school that serves students with special educational needs, including emotional challenges, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, multiple disabilities, and/or other mental health diagnoses. In addition to traditional mental health treatment and special education, the school integrates a variety of AAIs through its equine, farm animal, wildlife, and canine programs.
Data was analyzed from five-minute video clips coded using the Facial Expression Coding System (FACES), which provides information on the valence (positive, negative) and magnitude of facial expressions. Video clips were obtained either just-before or just-after students participated in a class that incorporated AAIs, an active control condition (i.e., a non-animal-assisted activity that takes place outside of the classroom), or a passive control condition (i.e., classwork as normal). Data analysis included linear multilevel models and damped linear oscillator models that assessed the relative impact of different conditions for the sample as a whole and for youth with specific profiles of clinical diagnoses.
Results: Preliminary analyses indicated that pre-post differences in affect variability varied systematically as a function of condition. After attending AAIs students showed differences in valence (positive or negative) and magnitude of facial expression, compared to attending class-as-usual.
Implications: This study illustrates how intensive observational assessments of emotion regulation can facilitate the evaluation of interventions provided in a holistic school-based setting. This approach allows an assessment of program impacts in situ, rather than within the more-sterile confines of a randomized control trial while additionally accommodating specificity in terms of which interventions impact which youth with which characteristics in which ways. Furthermore, findings provided key insights into the impact of AAIs that have been incorporated in a naturalistic setting and provided valuable information for practitioners interested in similar approaches to academic interventions among youth with complex diagnoses.