It won’t come as news to dance teachers that all good teaching begins with motivation and positive behavior. Without solid behavior management techniques, teachers simply don’t get to teach.
As a professor of teacher education at Miami University, I’ve both taught these research-based techniques and put them into practice—from teen ballet classes to college-level ballroom courses.
Here are four strategies I recommend to keep your classroom focused on learning.
1. Set Clear Structures and Expectations
Many teachers think of structure as negative, because they feel it can stifle creativity. But actually, clear structure and expectations can result in higher engagement.
Consider how you typically structure your class and make that clear to your students (e.g., warm-up, barre, center, free dance) from the start. Write down your most important expectations, making sure they are simple and understandable (“listen,” “do your best”). Communicate them in as many ways as possible, such as writing on the mirror in erasable marker and having a class discussion about them.
Time spent reteaching expectations and class structure will pay off in a well-run, stress-free class. Plus, talking with students about expectations encourages ownership of the class and responsibility for behavior.
2. Signal What’s Next
Signaling lets students know when it is time to stop one activity and listen to the teacher for instructions. You can use a voice or hand signal, a tone on your phone or a clapping pattern that students copy. Whatever it is, students need to be taught explicitly what to do when the signal is sounded. Practice and reteach until the entire class meets your expectations. Using signaling consistently reduces behavioral challenges during transitions and leaves more time for teaching.
3. Give Students Choices
Choice of activity—such as allowing students to select the order of activities or to choose one of two options—increases both motivation and engagement by giving students a sense of joint ownership over the lessons and environment. Hold a quick “meeting” before class to preview choices so they can have time to consider.
4. Give Specific Praise
Maximize the impact of your praise by being specific about what your students are doing well. For example, instead of “Excellent job!” or “Nice work,” say “You’re improving your extension” or “I see you’re working hard on time steps.” Some students, particularly beginners, may not know what you are looking for, and such statements provide direct feedback to the entire class as well as to the one student you are addressing.
Emphasize qualities that are important to you and show what they mean. For example, my ballet motto is “Pride. Presentation. Perseverance.” I try to model these on a regular basis (e.g., “Here’s how you can show ‘pride’ in this combination”), discuss them (“How do you think you can show ‘presentation’ in this exercise?”), and align much of my praise with these attributes (“I noticed how much you persevered during those pirouettes, and you were able to finish with a double”).
…And If That Doesn’t Work
Of course, these efforts will not prevent all challenging behaviors. For students who still struggle, I recommend using tangible rewards (stickers, pencils, food) given on the basis of meeting clear and specific expectations over a short time (for instance, less than two disruptions per half-hour class).
Consistent and immediate feedback can also help, as young people with behavioral challenges often do not know what they are doing wrong and lack social skills to pick up expected behaviors from classmates. Place those students next to good role models, ignore what you can, and concentrate on behaviors that are most disruptive. Proximity, or standing near the student, and silent signaling, a signal just you and the student know (like pointing to your nose when the student is off-task), can also help get a student back on track.