Journal club: Teaching students to communicate with children

This is a discussion of the following paper, published in JVME:

Dalley, J.S., Creary, P.R., Durzi, T. and McMurtry, C.M., 2016. An Interactive Teddy Bear Clinic Tour: Teaching Veterinary Students How to Interact with Young Children. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, pp.1-14.

When I saw the title of this paper, I was instantly drawn to it as it reminded me of the difficulties I faced talking to children in a consultation room during my time as a small animal vet. I remember awkwardly avoiding dealing with children; feeling embarrassed when I had to ask them to stop rooting through the clinical waste bin/pulling the cats tail while I examine its mouth/screaming at the top of their lungs (full disclosure: I am not a ‘natural’ with kids!). Any move to equip undergraduate students with a set of skills to make this challenge easier sounds like a great idea to me.

The article is, in the authors words, ‘an anecdotal description of a pilot study at the Ontario Veterinary College Smith Lane Animal Hospital’. The hospital has implemented Teddy Bear Clinic tours as a way to enable veterinary students to engage with children, with the added benefits of developing public engagement with the practice and giving back to the local community. In essence, small groups of children tour the clinical buildings with their favourite cuddly toy, learning about veterinary care with their teddy as a reference point. Practical activities give the kids chance to examine their teddies using safe instrumentation. The authors have included detailed resources enabling readers to implement the teddy tours (as I will be affectionately referring to them as) within their own practices or institutions.

After reading this article, I can see the value in implementing a programme like this. Whilst we can use actors to recreate a vast variety of adult clients for the purpose of training communication skills, the one experience we cannot simulation is communicating with children. Ethical and moral concerns prevent us from hiring child actors, and it would be highly inauthentic to ask an adult to recreate the experience. Therefore, the only way to learn is through contact with ‘real’ children. It seems innovative to facilitate this meeting of students and children by providing a mutually beneficial session, especially as it has the added attraction of promoting the practice or institution hosting to parents

The resources provided are excellent, and after reading through them I felt I had already learnt something about child communication. It is always refreshing to find researchers eager to share their resources with others. I believe, overall, the paper makes it simple for a reader to implement a similar program at their own institution.

The major drawback of this article, for me, is the lack of any attempt to understand the impact of the session on either students, staff, children or parents. Whilst the authors do clearly state that this is a pilot study and a ‘teaching tip’, I feel all they have gained is the knowledge that it is possible to run a session like this – no insight into whether or not it is worth doing. Yes, doing a large scale investigation at that stage would probably not have been appropriate, but even a short survey (directed only at the veterinary students if need be) would have provided some basis to conclude the teddy tours are worth investing time and money into.

Another reservation I have is that the authors prepared a script for the students leading the tours to follow. This is very detailed – although I am unclear on how verbatim the recital of it was intended to be. Either way, I wonder if this really constitutes learning to communicate with children, or simply learning lines? The authors didn’t specific the reason they chose to create a full script, but I would have preferred the students had freedom to choose their own way of talking to the kids, as we all have nuances in our communication methods that we need to learn to work with.

Overall, this article was food for thought and an interesting read. It highlighted some of the topics that may be missing from standard veterinary communication curricula currently. However, there is nothing data currently to support devoting the time and effort to planning and implementing something similar elsewhere – I am hoping that a follow-up research paper will be published including this.

Image: Christiaan Triebert

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