Dance for Special Education Students

Teaching dance in a K–12 setting means working with students with a wide range of abilities: Not everyone can execute a perfect grand jeté or double pirouette. Adding special education students to the mix is an extra challenge: Will they be able to keep up? Do you have to slow down your class? If a student also has a physical disability, how can you prevent him or her from feeling excluded?

The good news is that you don’t have to make drastic changes in order to welcome special ed students into your dance class. DT spoke with eight experts who offered advice on working with this population, and all concur that you should approach them as you would any student, by assessing their learning styles and doing your best to meet their needs.

Brad Roth, a teaching artist and founder/director of the Connecticut-based company Dancing Day, who specializes in working with students with disabilities, emphasizes this point. “If there’s a single word that can be a guiding directive, it’s ‘inclusion’—to create activities that include everyone,” says Roth, who calls his work “Shared Ability Dance.”

Here are six tips to help you include special ed students and make sure they get the most out of your dance class.

1. Build good relationships with the special ed teacher, aides and parents to familiarize yourself with each student and his or her particular needs. Doris Trujillo, Utah State Office of Education dance consultant and Utah Valley State College assistant dance professor, believes doing this will also help you develop a good relationship with the child.

At Fort Mill High School in Fort Mill, South Carolina, the special ed classroom teacher and teaching aide set their students’ goals for the dance class, and the aide attends the class with the students. FMHS dance teacher Elizabeth Hayes works closely with the aide, who helps students master difficult steps.

2. Provide plenty of options. Many educators find that they often don’t have to change class significantly for special ed students. In most cases, modifications have more to do with written work than with the physical part of the class, says Wrenn Cook, director of South Carolina Center for Dance Education in Columbia, SC. For example, if you give a written dance vocabulary test, you might test the special education student orally, or find a different method altogether.

Investigate different ways to accomplish the same objectives and goals, says Trujillo, particularly if you have a student with a physical disability. “Develop patterns and strategies for dealing with circumstances that might be challenging,” she advises. “Have an open mind and accept the possibility that they may look and move differently.”

To this end, Roth assesses his students’ various abilities and carefully plans exercises accordingly, including the instructions, in order to make sure everyone in the room will be able to participate in some way. “If you were to travel across the floor and jump in the middle, you might tell them that a jump can be done with the eyes,” he explains, “or that turning can also be done by drawing a circle in the air.”

3. Look at your class with a choreographer’s eye, recommends Atlanta-based choreographer, performer and teacher Celeste Miller. “I think, ‘At this moment in time, these students are my company, so what are the skills they need?’” says Miller, who developed the Curriculum-in-Motion program at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts. For two weeks each summer, she uses choreographic methods to teach an academic curriculum to a mixed-abilities group of high school students. “We specifically focus on being sensitive to the fact that there are different learning styles to be addressed,” she says.

This approach can also be helpful when dealing with students who have physical disabilities. In fact, the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance has developed a workshop and companion book that detail a “re-envisioning process” for incorporating students with physical challenges. The process involves “not looking at the individual’s disability as a deviation but rather as something that can help define the pattern, form, shape and direction of the dance,” says AAHPERD Executive Director Jan Seaman. “The intent is not to make the disabled dancers look and move like the able-bodied dancers, but to use their distinctions as part of the dance motif.”

4. Provide a challenge. It’s not necessary to dumb down your lessons, says Miller. “I found that students really appreciate being challenged, rather than having the work moderated down for them,” she says. Caroline Hoadley, the dance teacher at Bluffton Elementary School in Bluffton, SC, adds, “I start out expecting that they can do everything. Usually I include [special ed students], and I find that they are eager to do what everybody else is doing.”

Certainly there are instances in which modifications must be made. Trujillo, who has a special-needs son, sees the issue from the perspectives of both parent and teacher. “I want him to be looked at in the same way that all the students are seen, and viewed with those same expectations,” she explains. “But there is also an understanding that things may need to be slowed down, modified or simplified.”

5. Find common ground. In a mixed-abilities class, it is especially important to help all of the students feel comfortable with one another. For special ed students who spend most of their day in a self-contained classroom, this is a great opportunity to socialize with other students and focus on the things they have in common, rather than what sets them apart. With this in mind, Roth recommends encouraging students to share information about themselves—birthdays, siblings, pets, etc. “It reinforces the sense of commonality,” he says. One way to foster relationships among students is through peer tutoring, Trujillo adds, in which a special ed student is paired with a mainstream one.

The way you interact with special ed students also will determine their comfort level in class. Lenore Grunko, a former dance teacher at Woodstock Middle School in Woodstock, Connecticut, makes it a practice to never single anyone out. She says this ranks among her students’ greatest fears, and she does her best to allay this concern by giving global corrections. “Everybody does the same thing at the same time. Nobody stands out and nobody watches,” she says.

6. Be patient. As a teacher, this is a virtue at which you’ve already had plenty of practice. Still, taking some extra time to review a step can bring great rewards—for both you and your students. “It may take longer to teach a very basic skill, but [this population] is very receptive, open, curious,” says Miller. “I find them the warmest audience to work with.” DT


Michelle Vellucci is the associate editor of Dance Teacher’s sister magazine Dance Retailer News.

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