As we approach the start of another dance season, many of us are spending time polishing our lesson plans, perfecting our playlists, developing assessment tools, and brainstorming recital and concert ideas. But the “clean slate” of the new season also affords us – and our students – time to break old bad habits and start great new ones. In the Responsive Classroom methodology, the first six weeks of school are considered crucial. Teachers who adopt Responsive Classroom follow specific steps to ensure that their students start the year in a way that sets them up for engaged and productive learning. Dance teachers can apply the a similar mindset during the first six weeks in the studio to help set their students up for success throughout the year.
Here are my top four habits to start in the first six weeks of the dance season:
1.) Encouraging your students to show up, on time and in proper dress: As educators, we know that students simply cannot improve if they are not regularly present in class, for all of class, and dressed in a way that will keep them safe and help them focus. Instilling the importance of these practices during the first six weeks of class will help students and their families develop good habits. Make sure that your attendance, make-up, tardiness, and dress code policies are clearly listed in all studio materials or in your class syllabus so students and parents are aware of them from before classes start. Discuss your expectations often with students and families often during the first six weeks. Explain why attendance is crucial (it’s the only way to improve individually and keep the class moving forward as a group), why tardiness is disruptive and dangerous (the late student distracts her peers, and missing warm-up could result in injury), and how dress code helps students learn most effectively (it addresses safety issues, limits distractions, and helps the teacher see and correct potentially dangerous alignment issues). For new students in particular, provide plenty of resources on where to buy dress code items and how to properly fix hair.
- Consider incentives for perfect attendance and dress code adherence on a monthly or quarterly basis, such as a sticker for younger kids or a dress code pass for older students – that immediacy can be more effective than waiting until the end of the year to acknowledge these good behaviors!
- Plan an observation time within the first two months of lessons so that students have a chance to apply their skills and families can see that the learning starts from day one.
- Make sure that you are making the most of the first 5 minutes of class. You don’t want to give students or families the impression that the beginning of class doesn’t matter that much as it will only encourage tardiness. Make sure that your class starts off with a meaningful, engaging ritual, such as an energetic warm-up or a fun introduction game that students don’t want to miss!
- Remember that the first six weeks are a time for setting expectations and informing students of consequences. There will certainly be learning curves as students and families adjust. Be kind and give some grace at first. A nice option for these first weeks is to have a stack of reminder slips with the expectation and potential consequence that can be discretely handed to students or their parents after class if is late or not dressed properly.
2.) Creating a consistent class routine: Kids thrive on routine, and having consistency can help them feel safe and comfortable while also supporting their learning. I have found this to be especially important for pre-school and middle school students. The class routine should be designed to reinforce etiquette expectations, from how they enter the studio to how they bow and say thank you at the end of class. Structured warm-ups, with some room for variation from week to week to fit with your class theme or goals, can allow students to transition into class more easily. A basic class outline that stays more or less the same from gives students an idea of what to expect and may even help mitigate behavioral issues that arise from anxiety or fear of the unknown. Cool downs and closing rituals, from a formal révérence to a casual high five on the way out of the studio, help students process their class experience and leave on a positive note.
- If you are worried about students getting bored or parents getting suspicious of too much repetition, change the focus of your warm-up and cool-down each week. Some ideas include highlighting or adding level changes, playing around with different tempos, and changing up the movement quality or direction. Small changes help keep things fresh while still providing the comfort of the class routine.
- Changing the music is another great way to shake things up. As a teacher, I definitely have my favorite playlists and musical preferences, and I know that my music choices get predictable. But it is important to continually introduce students to new styles, tempos, meters, and rhythms to help them develop a strong sense of musicality.
- Spend a good portion of the first six weeks help students adjust to the routine and become comfortable with it. Focus on the importance of each part of class, for example: Warm-up prepares our bodies and minds for class, Progressions help us improve our technique, Phrases and combinations challenge our memories and help us apply what we are learning in new ways, Cool-down helps our muscles recover and our minds reflect on what we’ve learned. Help students navigate the class transitions with focus and master basics before pushing complex technical elements.
3.) Cultivating a positive class culture: You likely want your students to develop certain attitudinal habits, such as respect for self and others, focus and disciplined work, energy and enthusiasm, and kindness. The first six weeks should be a time to cultivate those attitudes and create the kind of culture you want for your class and studio. This can be done through activities designed to bring out these qualities, such as partner exercises to develop teamwork and empathy, and goal setting to help students find their internal motivation. It is also important to talk often to the students about your expectations and to enforce consistent and compassionate consequences when they are broken.
- Remember that your class culture starts even more students walk into the studio! Take time to greet students and parents in the lobby before or after class if your teaching schedule allows. In the first six weeks, you should know not only all of your students’ names, but also as their primary parent or guardians’.
- I believe that teaching social emotional skills is an important part of our role as educators, and the process should start in the first six weeks! More on that can be found here.
- In the first six weeks, you should start to identify potential issues, such as unmotivated students, gossipy parents, or “divas,”and try to correct them! If you allow these behaviors to go on beyond the first pivotal weeks, they will be harder to address in the future.
4.) Squelching bad movement habits: Speaking of addressing potential issues before they get worse, it is imperative to address your students’ postural and movement concerns in the first six weeks of class. For pre-schoolers, it might be the W sit, for older students it could be not getting all the way over the box of their pointe shoe, not reaching to the end of their kinesphere, or slouching between exercises. If you allow students to start the year off with sloppy habits, they will only get harder to correct. I definitely recommending addressing these issues before incorporating new, advanced technical elements into class.
- For little ones, it can be a good idea to have a set waiting posture, such as “ballet sit” (with one leg out and the other crossed over as in a Degas painting), butterfly with tall back, or a mermaid sit with legs to the side, to encourage good posture and energy in transitional moments of class.
- For older students, you may want to spend some time correcting the postural issues that come with modern life, such as swayback resulting from tight psoas muscles due to sitting too long, or hunched neck and rounded shoulders caused by texting. Remind students to be cognizant of their posture both while dancing and in transitional class moments.
- During the first six weeks of class, it can sometimes be fruitful to spend significant time on conditioning exercises to help make these corrections. Encourage at home practice with a checklist of these exercises and incentives for completion. Of course postural corrections probably won’t happen in those first six weeks, but by the early focus will help set students up for success throughout the year. You can track their progress with photos and videos, helping them to see the results of their hard work!