Managing student behavior in the dance studio
At some point in their career, even the most accomplished of dance teachers is going to run into an unruly class. It can be incredibly frustrating as an educator when you feel like you are giving it your all, but your students are just not having any of it! Disruptive behaviors are not only irritating to the teacher, they can ruin the dance class experience for the other students and even lead to injury or other safety concerns. It is important to realize that kids act out for a variety of reasons, but with simple adjustments to how we teach, we can often address the roots of these behavioral issues and help our students make better choices in the future!
There are many reasons why dance students misbehave in class, some of which are out of the instructor’s control. That being said, there are a few real, concrete steps that a teacher can take to help prevent disruptive behavior in class and curb it when it does occur. This blog post features nine reasons why your dance students are acting out … and what you can do about it!
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Why your dance students are acting out – and what to do about it
The students do not know the expectations
We take for granted that dancers know how they should act in class, but too often that is not the case. This can apply to students of all ages! For example, teaching an adult ballet class a while back, I assumed that the participants would know not to walk through the dance space while another group was dancing. This was not the case, and we only nearly avoided disaster as the group that had finished their combination walked right in the path of oncoming dancers taking their turn! Making assumptions about students’ knowledge of studio etiquette can lead to unintentional negative behaviors.
- What you can do about it: Explain the expectations for appropriate behavior at the beginning of the season, and remind students of them often throughout the year. I recommend taking a multi-pronged approach, with rules posted prominently in the studio, sent home to families in a handout and email, described in a dance student/family handbook, and explained verbally to students and parents several times throughout the year.
The expectations are not enforced consistently
Pre-school and middle school students in particular are often hyper-attuned to the idea of “fairness.” They are very aware when some students get away with negative behaviors and others don’t. When they see that expectations are not enforced consistently, either within a single class or across the studio, they are more likely to try to test the limits themselves to see what they can get away with.
- What you can do about it: Be consistent – which is not as easy as it sounds! It can be tempting to let certain things slide now and then, whether it is because a small infraction doesn’t seem like a big deal in that particular moment, or because you are tired and frazzled and don’t want to get into a big discipline thing, or because you are worried about fallout from the students’ families. I promise you, though, that it is far easier in the long run to deal with negative behaviors immediately and consistently across the board. It is also important to make sure that all faculty are on the same page with behavior expectations and consequences. If students are used to “getting away with” certain behaviors in one class, it will naturally feel “unfair” when another teacher tries to correct those behaviors. (Tip: Get all faculty united by laying out studio-wide expectations and consequences with The Holistic Guide to Creating a Dance Teacher Handbook.)
The students have unmet needs
I don’t think I realized the importance of this one until I be came a parent myself. My kids are generally quite well-behaved … until they get hungry, thirsty, tired, or stressed. Then – look out! If you have dancers that are particularly disruptive, or who are more disruptive in some classes than others, it might be a good idea to talk with them and their families. Are they coming to class with an empty stomach? Are they hydrated? Are they getting enough sleep at night? Is class falling during their usual nap time? Are they over scheduled with too many activities? Are they experiencing stress at school or home?
- What you can do about it: Hopefully, if the answers to any of these questions is yes, the solution will be easy. You can remind the student not to skip lunch, eat a snack between their dance classes, develop a better time management plan for homework, take an extra water break during class, or even cut back on an activity or two. For my kids, there is true behavior-changing power in a nap and hearty snack. But sometimes, real trauma or trouble may be at the heart of these issues. You may need to get the studio owner, school administer, or even an outside agency involved in cases of suspected abuse, neglect, eating disorders, financial distress, or intentional self-harm.
- If you are finding that all of the students in a particular class are having a stressful day that is affecting their attitude or behavior, you may want to check out my Dance Activities for Creative Rest. These are my go-to during school testing weeks or right after a concert, when students are burned out and behaving badly because if it!
You haven’t connected with your students
I’ve always believed in the power of connecting with students, but reading Dance Pedagogy for a Diverse World: Culturally Relevant Teaching in Theory, Research and Practice by Nyama McCarthy-Brown really brought it home for me. It is crucial that we create a learning environment in which all students feel seen, heard, valued, and included. If students feel ostracized or disconnected from what they are learning, and the people they are learning with and from, then they may be more likely to act out or disengage. On the other hand, if our students feel that we care about them enough to get to know their culture, interests, goals, and values – and incorporate them into our lesson plans – then they will be more likely to trust us and go along with our expectations for the class.
- What you can do about it: Take time at the beginning of the year to build a strong class community, in which you have connected with your students and they are connected to one another. I start each season off with get-to-know-you student surveys, which provide an easy way for me to find out my students’ tastes, interests, needs, and goals. Remember that these change over time, so it’s helpful to check in with a survey or other method at least once a year. I also play plenty of introduction and team-building games, to foster community among the students. Throughout the year, I’ll try to connect with the class by using their survey responses to help me choose music, imagery, references, games, and choreography that will resonate with them.
- I can’t recommend Dance Pedagogy for a Diverse World: Culturally Relevant Teaching in Theory, Research and Practice highly enough, for dance teachers of all genres and in all environments. Add it to your library by purchasing at Bookshop.com or Amazon!
The students are bored
In a perfect world, students would have the self-motivation to engage themselves in every lesson, regardless of the content or presentation. But we all know that isn’t the case. Boredom can be the result of a number of issues, which vary based on the students’ age and development. Younger and less mature students often don’t know how to handle boredom, and act out as a result. When even one student is feeling bored in class, the resulting behavior can spread like a bad cold and infect even our most well-behaved students.
- What you can do about it: Keep things interesting with the ideas in this blog post, and keep class moving. Unfortunately, we are working against a societal culture that is fast-paced, instantly gratifying, and overly stimulating. Of course we want to help our students develop the skills that allow them to slow down, to self-motivate, and to focus, but we need to meet them where they are at in order to reach them with these lessons. Don’t be afraid to change things up frequently, especially when students are showing signs of boredom. This can be as simple as changing facing away from the mirror, incorporating partner activities, playing unexpected music, or incorporating educational dance games that help students while having fun. Research has proven that students learn through play – so don’t be afraid to embrace it! (Tip: Check out the Dance Games Bundle for 75 easy to use dance games that keep students learning through play all season long!)
The students need social and emotional support
Just like unmet physical needs can cause a student to act out in dance class, when students need social and emotional support, it may manifest in poor behavior during class. The Covid-19 pandemic has left many students in behind in their social skills and in need of more emotional caretaking than we might be used to. If we do not acknowledge these needs by including social and emotional learning in our dance classes, students may resort disruptive behavior.
- What you can do about it: Help students catch up on social skills and learn the appropriate ways to socialize in dance class with the ideas in this blog post. Take some time to help students process and express their emotions in a healthy way with these activities to support your dancers’ emotional health. Read this blog post to help you learn more about social-emotional learning in dance!
The level of the class is not appropriate
When students are not feeling challenged, or when they can’t keep up, they are likely to act out. It is critical to make sure that you properly evaluating and assessing students throughout the year, and adjusting class material accordingly. As I like to say, “You have to teach the students in front of you, regardless of what the schedule says.” This may mean stepping back to review basic concepts until students feel comfortable with them, or challenging them with more advanced material if appropriate.
- What you can do about it: Sometimes it is impossible to avoid a situation where there are mixed ages and levels in the class. In this instance, differentiation is key. Differentiated instruction is an educational term that essentially means the teacher tailors teaching methods and activities to meet each students’ individual needs. In the dance studio, some ways I use differentiation are:
- Providing multiple versions of the same exercise and either assigning students to, or letting them chose, the easiest, intermediate, or most advanced option. You can find an example in this video.
- Mixing students up for group work, so that sometimes the more experienced students have a chance to work together and push one another, and other times they work with less advanced dancers and become leaders in the group.
- Using highly structured improvisation to help students make their own personal discoveries about their technique and artistry.
- Helping my students set their own unique goals and develop a plan to achieve them with The Holistic Guide to Goal Setting for Dancers.
Your expectations are not realistic
A group of five year olds is just not going to be able to stand quietly at the barre for 30 minutes or drill choreography for an entire class. It is vital to take into consideration the students’ age, development, and maturity when designing curricula, lesson plans, and behavioral expectations.
- What you can do about it: Use educational standards, such as the National Core Arts Standards in Dance, to make sure that you are teaching content that is age and developmentally appropriate. Consider the students’ maturity when making your lesson plans. A pre-school class or group of adolescent beginners, for example, will need shorter exercises, more frequent change-up of activities, and clearly defined transitions between the parts of class. Experienced dancers can be expected to concentrate longer and more intently on a single concept or exercise, and might need more relaxed transitions to give them a “break” between periods of focused work. Younger students who are still developing critical social and emotional skills need lots of positive reinforcement, with gentle correction and redirection when they break the rules. Pre-teens who are trying to test boundaries need rules to be enforced strictly and consistently, as they often secretly crave order and structure even as they rebel against it. For help creating engaging, appropriate lessons for all ages and levels, check out The Holistic Guide to Dance Lesson Planning.
There is something deeper going on
When all of the above fail, it might be a sign that there are other underlying issues at home, in school, in other classes, or with their peers. Part of our job as educators is to cautiously and compassionately address these concerns and help our students navigate them through their dance training.
- What you can do about it: Talk privately with the student first, then their family if appropriate. Bring the studio owner, program director, or other teachers in as needed. Always be sensitive to the students’ privacy and never share confidential information with their peers or other families. Direct them to support services if you are able. Most importantly, be a supportive, positive force in their lives.