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Incorporation of Aquarium into Special Education Classroom goes Swimmingly: An Interview with Christine Holton

Two members of Christine Holton’s special education class receive a lot of extra attention from the other students.  These two members of the class help teach the students responsibility, communication, motor skills, and self-control.  However, these class members can usually be found swimming around in a ten gallon aquarium and go by the names of Bubbles and Goldie.

Christine Holton Pre-K through 1st Grade Teacher at Dream Lake Elementary School Christine Holton Pre-K through 1st Grade Teacher at Dream Lake Elementary School Finding the Right Fit

Holton, a Pre-Kindergarten through first grade teacher at Dream Lake Elementary School in Apopka, Florida, first began her teaching career in elementary education in 1990.  After a few years, she decided to take more classes in order to become an elementary educator for children with moderate to severe intellectual and physical disabilities.
Holton’s current class consists of nine students, between the ages of three and six, and two assistants.  The students each have some physical and intellectual disabilities and health impairments.  All of the students have speech and language impairments, and eight of the students are nonverbal.  Four of the students also use wheelchairs.  With her unique class, Holton is constantly looking for new ways to stimulate, educate, and enhance her students’ learning experiences.  Adding animals to her classroom has proven to be a beneficial way to work towards each of those goals.  
During a doctor’s appointment for her son, Holton noticed an aquarium in the medical office’s waiting room.  All of the young patients were drawn to the aquarium and seemed to be calmed and centered by the presence of the fish.  Holton was amazed by this impact and knew that fish could have a positive influence on her students as well.  
“I wanted to bring that effect into my classroom,” said Holton. 
One day as Holton was scrolling through her newsfeed on Facebook, an advertisement for Pets in the Classroom popped up, and she knew she had found the perfect way to bring animals into her classroom.  Pets in the Classroom is a grant program that provides Pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade teachers with the finances necessary to add aquarium fish, birds, and small animals to their classrooms.  This financial support gives students the educational opportunity to engage with animals and learn more about animal care and welfare.  Pets in the Classroom offers eight different types of grants that can help teachers purchase live animals and pet care supplies or maintain an existing classroom pet.  Grant values vary depending on the type of animal and needs of each teacher.  A young student enjoys calmly watching the fish swimA young student enjoys calmly watching the fish swim
After learning about Pets in the Classroom, Holton decided to apply for a grant and was thrilled to receive a voucher to be used to get her own aquarium started.  The grant covered all of the equipment, feed, and animals necessary to develop an aquarium for her classroom.  

A Unique Learning Experience

Holton’s students are very fond of their two classroom goldfish, and enjoy spending time looking at the fish.  
“[The students] like to sit and watch the fish when they are feeling agitated,” said Holton.  “They have a calming effect on many of the students.”
By visually tracking the swimming fish, the students are developing necessary skills that are outlined by their vision teacher.  Since most of her students cannot communicate verbally, Holton has seen a lot of communication development as well as her students learn to use purposeful communication to express the fact that they want to go visit the fish.  The students also learn responsibility by feeding the fish and realizing that the animals are reliant on people for nourishment and care.  
“The kids really, truly love the fish,” said Holton.

The Unexpected Impact

Holton has seen the fish have a different impact on each of her students.  One of her students was nonverbal and was doing very little signing before the fish joined the classroom.  Once the fish arrived, the student started signing a lot more and often signed words such as “fish” and “swim.”  
Another one of her students used to suffer from separation anxiety and would cry every time someone he liked left the room.  However, his crying and anxiety lessened when Holton and her assistants started having him take everyone to the fish tank to say ‘goodbye’ to the fish before leaving.  This task and distraction breaks the pattern of sadness and tears and helps the child cope with his anxiety.  
Each student is impacted by the fish in a different wayEach student is impacted by the fish in a different wayAdditionally, she also saw the impact of the fish on one child who spins all around the classroom until he gets to the aquarium where he stops and watches the fish.  The aquarium helps to change the behavior pattern and gives this student the opportunity to calm down and refocus his attention.  Holton believes that the fish’s presence serves as a transition for many of her students who need something to catch their eye and help them calm down. 
Holton has also noticed that many of her students enjoy being around the fish because of their nonjudgmental nature.  With some people looking at her students and only noticing their differences, Holton is very aware that the children can feel uncomfortable or self-conscious when interacting with other people.   
“Some of the children are definitely aware of their differences, but the fish don’t know that they are different or in a wheelchair or can’t talk,” said Holton.  “The fish are just always happy to see them which makes the kids feel accepted.”
Holton has been pleasantly surprised at the outcome of adding the fish to her classroom.  She feels that their presence has had an effect on the therapy, curriculum, and behavior levels of her class.  Because of this multifaceted impact, she encourages other educators to consider adding an animal to their classroom.  
“Just do it because you just don’t know what the outcome will be, but it will probably be great,” said Holton.

To learn more about Dream Lake Elementary School, visit their website.  To learn more about Pets in the Classroom or to apply for a grant to help fund a classroom pet, visit their website.  

  1. Animal care
  2. Animal welfare
  3. Aquariums
  4. Children
  5. Elementary Education
  6. Fish
  7. Special Education

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