We thought we would check in with Anita Morris (Director / Psychologist MSc, BSc (Hons), BA (Hons), MBPsS, Certified Master Behaviour Coach) from ‘Hack Back Therapy Training and Education’ to find out more about the innovative approach they use with the children and young people at our High Peak School, Cheshire.
"I started working with birds of prey within animal assisted therapy over 14 years ago after a chance meeting with Steve Birchall who owns Cheshire Falconry, prior to that I had no knowledge or interest in birds of prey. At that time I was working mainly in leadership development, stress and emotional intelligence. I worked internationally with organisations such as NHS, UEFA, UN, HM Treasury and many more, and was also lecturing in Psychology at Liverpool John Moore’s University. When I first found out about falconry and birds of prey, for me it mapped onto theories of emotional intelligence and we started to run pilot projects to develop a way of working with the birds that would impact positively on participants. This has evolved into what I do today which is to combine interaction with birds of prey with recognised coaching techniques to promote therapeutic impact. I am currently completing my proposal for a PhD to provide research evidence for this approach. The main focus for my work is with autistic children and young people."
"I have worked with the school since Anne Price joined about 18 months ago. Many of the children I work with are autistic with comorbid anxiety and depression, which is very common in the autistic community. A couple of examples of the way that I work are as follows: the first thing to do when working with birds of prey is to create a calm environment. The children quickly learn that if they want to spend time with the birds, I use mainly owls in school, they must remain calm. For children who find staying calm difficult such as those with ADHD this can be challenging, but the presence of an owl is a very useful motivator. I have seen children in meltdown change immediately and become calm when an owl comes out of his box. Birds of prey will only work with you through a bond of trust which takes time to develop and the children learn that they must the calm and consistent in their behaviour to encourage the bird to fly to them. The birds will not fly to people who are agitated and once on the glove, if the child is unable to stay calm the bird will quickly fly off. All the time I am working with the children I am asking questions which help them to think about what is going on for the bird and how this impacts on their own thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
When we are working at Cheshire Falconry it is important to follow rules and to only do what you are asked to do for the safety of people and the birds. We always work together in activities at the falconry which creates a positive environment. The children and young people learn about falconry and raptor (bird of prey) management. One of the jobs we do is food preparation which is pretty yucky and challenges those with sensory issues. They learn about manning which is getting the bird used to all of the sights, sounds and experiences it is likely to come across in its life. This gives a perfect opportunity to ask questions about how this is relevant to the child themselves. They learn about training birds of prey, how it must be a slow process, how we build things up incrementally, how we reward only positive behaviour and how we always finish on a positive. Again, all this is very relevant to the child and through careful questioning I get them to think about this in the context of themselves and those around them. Many of the young people I work with get to the stage of being able to fly a hawk in a woodland setting taking the responsibility for handling and flying it. This has an amazing impact on confidence and self-esteem as does the recognition that they are being trusted by the falconry team to handle a valuable and impressive creature."
"The owls which go into High Peak School are Murray, a burrowing owl; Axel, a Northern white faced owl; Mango, a European barn owl and Idris who is an African spotted eagle owl. All are trained to work in unusual environments including hospices and hospitals."
"The children really enjoy the sessions with the birds. The birds do not judge and no matter what a child’s condition or disability may be, the birds are happy to fly to them if they are calm. The birds sometimes do things that are very funny so we have a lot of fun in sessions. Imagine the excitement of being able to take control of flying a bird of prey yourself. For many of the children I work with flying a bird of prey is a unique and exciting experience which makes it an amazing motivational tool. For some of the children I work with it can be life changing."
"The outcomes are very varied depending on the needs of the child. An increase in self-esteem and confidence are common in all of the children I work with. I have worked with adults as well as children with poor emotional control which often improves dramatically after a few sessions with the birds. Children start to recognise their own emotions and those of others around them and are better able to express themselves. They are better able to assess risk and to recognise the impact of risky behaviours. They become better at problem solving. Practical skills such as weighing the bird, working out food requirements and so on help with functional maths. We talk together about the language associated with falconry and birds of prey which helps to build language skills and English. The birds can be very anxious in some situations which helps us to have an open dialogue about issues such as anxiety and what we can do to help. This is just a few examples of the outcomes achieved. Each session is geared to the needs of the child and the opportunity to work closely with school staff and care givers provides greater opportunities to help the children to make more significant positive changes to behaviour, attitude and wellbeing."