Abstract: Promoting Youth Social-Emotional Development through Animal-Assisted Interventions: A Qualitative Analysis of Youths’ Perspectives (Society for Social Work and Research 28th Annual Conference - Recentering & Democratizing Knowledge: The Next 30 Years of Social Work Science)

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Promoting Youth Social-Emotional Development through Animal-Assisted Interventions: A Qualitative Analysis of Youths’ Perspectives

Friday, January 12, 2024
Monument, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Erin Flynn, MSW, Doctoral Student and Research Associate, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Marisa Motiff, MSW, Research Associate, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Ashley Taeckens, Research Fellow, University of Denver
Megan Mueller, Associate Professor, Tufts University
Kevin Morris, PhD, Research Associate Professor, Executive Director, and the American Humane Endowed Chair, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Background: Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) are used in mental health and school settings to promote psychological and social-emotional well-being among youth. Relational-developmental systems (RDS) meta-theory views individuals as embedded in a physical and psychosocial context with the person-context coaction as the basic unit of analysis. The Five Cs model of positive youth development (PYD), an RDS-based theory, conceptualizes youth development as being governed by mutually beneficial relationships between a youth’s individual strengths and assets present within the environment. This conceptualization is particularly useful to AAI, where youth-animal coactions are theorized to be highly varied in quality and process of change. Most PYD research focuses on resources within socially defined systems and neglects to account for relations that are self-selected, such as youths’ relationships with animals. Human-animal coaction can be a significant part of the ecology of human development through pet ownership and therapeutic and educational programs involving animals. Research is needed that expands existing human-centric models of child development to examine how naturally occurring relationships between youth and other animals might influence development. This qualitative study examined how relationships with animals may operate as an ecological asset in the lives of youth and, based on the lived expertise of students who participated in AAI, identified processes of change that may drive developmental outcomes to be tested in future research.

Methods: This study used a phenomenological approach to analyze interviews from 30 students attending a school for special education and mental health services that incorporates AAI. Recruitment used convenience sampling. On average, participants were 12.6 years old (SD = 1.1, range 10-14) and most held multiple mental health diagnoses that were classified as a type of emotional disturbance (e.g., anxiety, depression) or neurodivergence (e.g., autism spectrum disorder, ADHD). Twenty-seven participants identified as male, two as female, and one as gender fluid. Eighteen individuals identified as white, six as Black, four as multiracial, and two as Hispanic/Latinx which paralleled the demographic composition that is typical of the organization. Thirty-minute, semi-structured interviews used prompts designed to encourage participants to share perspectives that represented a range, depth, and nuance of their experiences. Data were inductively coded, and a thematic map was developed to visually represent relationships between themes highlighted by participants. To test validity, themes were shared with participants who were asked to give feedback.

Results: Youth perceived their relationships with animals as contributing to enhanced social connection, and that this supported self-esteem and confidence, enjoyment, and self-regulation. Youth reported positive sensory experiences with animals as supporting self-regulation and described barriers to participation in AAI. Within the Five Cs model, the concepts of connection and confidence were best represented.

Conclusions: AAI was experienced as a context for promoting positive development and social-emotional outcomes. AAI may need to be structured to prioritize youths’ ability to form positive social connections with animals and incorporate positive sensory experiences while limiting negative ones. It may be important to expand the PYD framework to explicitly include animals as a component of the social dimension of the ecology of human development.