When it comes to teaching Pre-K to fifth-graders, behavior issues are inevitable. Whether it's a child who wants to run around the room or a student who just flat-out refuses to follow instructions, knowing how to respond can be challenging. Compound that with the added obstacles of a K–12 school environment—where you may have an unusual dance space to teach in, limited class time or students who are just not interested in dance—and taking care of behavioral problems quickly and compassionately becomes even more essential.

Here, two Pre-K–5 teachers and one mental health professional offer their best strategies for dealing with four common behavior issues.


For the child who doesn't want to participate…

Take a moment to check in with where your students are coming from. "Because it's a school and not a dance studio, I'm very aware that not every student wants to dance," says Omar Rodriguez Diaz, the exploratory arts teacher at the New School of San Francisco. Likewise, Esmeralda Kundanis-Grow, who works with 2- to 3-year-olds at Temple Emanu-El Preschool in San Francisco, points out the importance of recognizing how students might be arriving to class. "It takes time to acclimate to any new experience and new environment," she says. "Sometimes the shy may not really be shy. They may have just woken up from a nap or are self-regulating from separating from a caregiver. They may just be wary of what the room holds."

In these situations, taking the time to get to know your students and earn their trust can work wonders. "I work to build a relationship with them by playing games, doing warm-up activities and a lot of yoga and breathing exercises," says Angélica Medina, a mental health consultant with Oakland Unified School District. "Even just being silly or allowing yourself to be vulnerable with them will help build that trust."

For the attention-seeker…

The squeaky wheel often gets the grease, but in a dance class, turning your full attention to that one student who is working hard to distract you or others can be detrimental to the rest of the class.

Medina explains that children exhibiting attention-seeking behavior are yearning for a connection. When confronted with this kind of behavior, she takes it as a learning opportunity in communication. "When I see children who are wanting to connect with me, I prompt them to ask me for what they need: 'Do you need a hug?' 'Do you want me to read a book?'" Medina explains that this reinforces their ability to express themselves, rather than the negative behavior itself.

For the tantrum-thrower…

Temper tantrums are the ultimate disruptive classroom behavior and can signify a lot of different problems. First, check in with whether the student is overstimulated, says Kundanis-Grow. Outbursts might just be a response to sensory overload, so having a safe space off to the side of the room where the student can calm down often works wonders. "I like to offer the space for them to feel their feelings," she says. Rodriguez Diaz calls this the "Cool Down Corner" in his classroom and only has students sit out for as many minutes as their age.

When addressing a student throwing a tantrum, be mindful that the words you say and how you say them are extremely important. "Don't underestimate the effectiveness of a change in tone," says Rodriguez Diaz. Medina tries to avoid phrases like, "No, don't do that," opting instead for positive language that recognizes what they're experiencing and offers a choice. "For example, I might say, 'It looks like you are really upset. You might need to take a break. What would you like to do for that break? Read a book or take a walk?'" Because students aren't thinking rationally when they are upset, keeping the choice to only two options works best.

For the hyperactive child…

"Stay calm," says Rodriguez Diaz. Because children learn so much by observing their teacher, modeling the behavior you want to see from them is paramount. He points out that some hyperactive children might be bored and just need an additional challenge. Try offering different levels of difficulty in your games and exercises throughout class.

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