At some point in your teaching career, it’s likely that you will have a student who has difficulty with learning, concentration, language or making and keeping friends. Unless you’ve had formal training in working with special needs children, it can seem daunting to have such a child in your dance class—whether or not they’ve been officially diagnosed with a learning disorder or disability.
That was the case for Beverly H. Whiteside, a dance education specialist at Fair Avenue Arts Impact Elementary in Columbus, Ohio. She has taught dance at the school for 15 years, but only started teaching dance to special needs students four years ago. “I wasn’t that willing at the beginning because I felt unqualified,” she says. “I thought, ‘How do I approach them?’”
Ten percent of all students in classrooms have a disability of some kind, says Russell Granet, founder of Arts Education Resource and faculty member at New York University’s Steinhardt School. So chances are you’ve already had special needs students in your studio, whether you were aware of it or not.
Teachers working with children with more serious disorders, like autism or Down’s syndrome, should seek out special training. But with the following information and some advance planning, you can be sure that your general dance classes are welcoming and accommodating to most students.
Establish a Routine
Many teachers find it helpful to develop traditions, such as starting every dance class in a circle with the same breathing exercise. “It gives students a sense of place and a sense of security,” Granet says. “We want to make the studio a safe haven for students, and you can do that with rituals.”
Another good way to create structure is to have students help you create a list of expectations and disciplinary procedures at the start of the year, says Sandra Stratton-Gonzalez, the dance specialist at P.S. 372 in Brooklyn, NY, which offers inclusive classes for its 500 students. Though Stratton-Gonzalez works in a K–12 setting, her advice can be equally effective in studio classes. For example, at the beginning of each school year, she writes down dance-related goals—mastering a single pirouette, or being able to sit in a split—for each of her special needs children, which can be equally useful and effective for all students in a studio setting. “It’s good for the kids, and the families are aware of the goals because they participate in the formation of the document,” Stratton-Gonzalez says.
Rethink Traditional Structure
When working with high-functioning special needs children, your lesson plans will need to be flexible. “Sometimes, you have to allow the lesson to be a complete disaster,” Whiteside says. “If, in the middle of it, you see it’s not working, stop, regroup, forgive yourself and move on.”
Granet suggests creating three 15-minute sessions instead of one 45-minute class. “If you have a student who is highly distractible, it may not work to have one straight lesson,” he says. “Often dance teachers are running a race to get through things. Be a little more gentle with yourself.”
Remember, too, that the same lesson plan won’t work for every child. “Make sure that you provide the type of support and differentiation an individual child might need,” Stratton-Gonzalez says. That might mean giving a hyperactive child a break to refocus after an exercise, or turning down the music if a student has a noise sensitivity.
Granet says to remember that sometimes a disruptive student is just a disruptive student. “That doesn’t pertain to having a disability. That’s classroom management,” he says. “Go back to the lesson, making sure that you have an engaging exercise planned, which will help keep kids focused.”
Stratton-Gonzalez agrees. “Our job is to make this work, and to not remove kids from the studio. With really good structures and routines in place, most of the time you can make it work,” she says.
If a child continues to cause problems, simple in-class techniques like speaking quietly to her, asking her to sit out for a few minutes or giving her a different exercise to work on can be very effective. However, if you feel a dance student is choosing not to be engaged or is being purposely disruptive, it’s time to talk to the parents. “Go to the parents, and if the child is 10 or older, talk to her as well,” Granet says. “Say: ‘This isn’t working for either of us. What do you suggest?’”
Talk to colleagues at your studio or teachers at the child’s academic school to learn successful teaching strategies. “There are art, music and gym teachers at the local elementary or high school who also work with your students,” Stratton-Gonzalez says. “They’re going to have the same issues. They are also in a big space with a lot of kids, they are often still working with a physical discipline and they all still need the kids to focus.”
Whiteside also chats with occupational, physical and speech therapists. “I try to incorporate their concepts in my classroom,” she says. To assist in the occupational therapist’s goal of fine-tuning motor skills, Whiteside sometimes has her students perform body isolations with movement initiated from scarves or rhythm sticks, while she plays the drums.
Granet agrees that it is important to communicate with the child, her parents and, if possible, health professionals. “Think of it as building a community,” he says. “And always go to the source. The best person to talk to is often the student herself.” DT
Hannah Maria Hayes is a freelance writer with an MA in dance education from New York University.
Photo courtesy of Sandra Stratton-Gonzalez