Teaching dance to little ones goes much deeper than turns and leaps. Dance teachers get to influence how these young brains create neuron connections that are responsible for their relationship with dance, goal-setting, joy for learning and so so so much more.
Through years of teaching and learning about child development, I have learned that the early years are crucial. 90% of a child's brain develops by the age of five and guess which part of the brain is the last to develop? The part that requires focusing, logic and reason, also known as the pre-frontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex actually doesn't develop fully until the age of 25. Yet, adults usually have little patience when little ones are unable to focus or act with reason
Guess which part of the brain is most active during our children's early childhood? The more instinctive and primitive part of our brain - also called the limbic region and the amygdala.
We all know that children's imagination is extraordinarily strong. Yet, their will to please us is even stronger because that is how they feel secure in a relationship. So, of course, if we want to train our children to not jump in dance class, or we want them to practice every single day, they will do it - to please us. After all, children are highly capable beings and their number one survival need is to belong and be accepted by us.
But what exactly is the best thing for them to learn - that is also developmentally appropriate?
Children need our help connecting their "primitive" brain to their prefrontal cortex in a healthy way. This is the biggest work teachers can do for their students.
In his book Whole Brain Child, Dr. Siegel shares a research concluding the best way to foster healthy brain development in children is by remembering the following 4 "S"s. Children need to be:
Seen — Dr. Siegal calls this the "mindsight". This is when we are able to see past the child's behavior and into their actual emotions and intentions. Here are some examples:
A student comes late to class. The dance teacher is able to see their discomfort and insecurity around showing up late and says "I am so glad you are here. We were missing you." versus further digging into their wound by asking them "Why are you late?" in front of all their peers. These things can definitely be addressed but doing this in private is a lot more effective and trust-building than shaming them in front of their peers. And in my experience, when dealing with younger students, the late factor needs to be addressed with the adults, NOT the little ones.
Teacher notices a certain student constantly messes up their dance steps whenever performing in front of others or sense their nervousness when corrected in front of others. Such "mindsight" can inform the teacher to give this student tools that will help them build confidence. Such students will thrive if the teacher can give feedback privately and remind them of how awesome they are doing more often. These students will need extra cues from their teach on what they are doing well.
Safe — Safety is created by trust. Human beings feel safe with people who can hold space for their imperfections and mistakes. People don't feel safe with those they are afraid of. Here is an example of what that can look like in a dance classroom:
A student keeps messing up on the same step over and over again: "It seems like you have been practicing with the wrong arm for a long time, we need to retrain your body to use the other arm. I know you will work on it this week so you can do it with the right arm." Instead of: "You are doing it wrong again. How many times have I told you this? This can't happen again. If it does, I am going to have to talk to your parents about this."
Soothed — Difficult emotions are inevitable. Children need our help in dealing with difficult emotions and situations. This is where teachers can intentionally help connect their students' "primitive" brain to their prefrontal cortex in a healthy way. Here are some examples:
A student starts to cry in class. Healthy soothing for this student's brain requires the dance teacher to name their feeling and validate it. I can't tell you how many times parents and teachers have told their crying toddlers "It's ok. Nothing is wrong. Don't cry." As good as their intentions might be, these statements tell the child's brain that their feelings and thoughts are not real. Instead, we need to say: "You are feeling sad. I know how that feels. Let's go to the side and see how we can help you feel better." If parents or an assistant is available, the teacher can leave the child with them until they get a good cry out. Or the teacher can ask them if they want a hug and let them know it is totally okay to be sad. The student can be allowed to sit down and observe the class until they feel better. This is just the first step to many more steps that requires another blog. Whatever the emotion may be, the student needs a safe space to safely express it without judgment. And then, depending on the age of the dancer, parents and teachers can work together to help the student reflect and create a plan on how they can handle things differently next time.
When students behave in an undesirable way, their behavior needs to be corrected. A teenaged student had been consistently late to my classes for a few weeks now. One particular day she was thirty minutes late. I told her that she missed all of our choreography cleaning. She could see the disappointment in my face. Later that day, she came to me in tears telling me how bad she felt that she disappointed me by coming to class late. I hugged her and said "One thing you do wrong does not make me forget the 100 things you do right. My respect and love for you has not changed." This student needed me to soothe her and help her understand that yes, what she did was wrong but it did not make me respect her any less. I am grateful she felt safe and secure enough to be vulnerable with me so I can have this moment to soothe her emotions by reminding her that I know she is good inside, no matter what.
Secure — Teachers can help their students feel secure and self-confident by developing a sense of well-being that comes from within, instead of from others. This can be done in multiple ways:
No Comparing! This comes from making sure we don't compare one student with another. They are already doing it amongst themselves, which makes it even more important for teachers not to amplify it further.
Effort Not Outcome! Pointing out how hard our students are working is much more important than focusing on the end result, aka "perfection". This helps them connect to their inner will and enjoy the hard work involved in the process instead of an unhealthy attachment solely to the external result. Ex: “Wow! Your turns look so much better today than they did last week.Thank you for your hard work.”
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, know that your students can hear your intentions louder than your words. So, if you say all the right things but don’t really mean it or believe it , they will KNOW. That’s why the hardest work lies in doing your own self-work to reframe and rewire unexamined beliefs.
Children’s relationships with their teachers has a huge impact in shaping their brains which informs the way they see the world. Warm, loving and intentional relationships between dance teachers and their students can help develop their confidence, resilience and communication skills. These skills are invaluable because they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives.