Dance educators know that learning class etiquette is just as important as learning to point your toes. Class etiquette not only allows the class to function smoothly, but it also instills in dancers respect for their teachers and classmates. It’s never too early to start teaching etiquette, and, for teachers of early childhood students, these lessons tend to happen while corralling spirited children and managing preschooler meltdowns.
Two experienced dance educators share practical advice on how to set expectations and handle some of the most common scenarios teachers face with young children. Through these examples, they demonstrate how to introduce etiquette and class protocols while remembering that their students are still young children who just want to have fun.
Setting Expectations at the Beginning of Class
The beginning of class is a critical point in setting protocols for young dancers. Kellie Satterly, teacher at Mary Lorraine’s Dance Center in Omaha, Nebraska, uses the moment she invites students into the room as a way to establish her authority while making sure the child feels seen and welcome: “I try to greet everyone at the door. I make eye contact with them, say hello, use their name, and direct them where they need to go.”
For Rachel Cantor, owner and director of Dance with Miss Rachel in New York City, the key to her success is using consistency and setting expectations. She puts this into action by starting every class exactly the same way. “The expectation is the same whether you are 2 or 12 years old,” she says. “You enter the classroom in a calm and focused way, you sit on the floor in a circle, and you sing the butterfly song.” Whether they’re hesitant or overly energetic, the familiarity of this ritual and its music helps the children calm down, setting the dancers—and the teacher—up for success.
Handling Separation Anxiety
Separating from a parent or guardian can be scary for a child who is new to group activities or hasn’t attended school yet. Cantor makes sure she takes care of both the dancer and the caregiver. “I tell the caregiver that it is a natural part of childhood and they are in excellent hands,” she says. Satterly also works to engage the parents. With their consent, she carries the crying child into class. “I try to be very motherly to the child. When I set them down, I still hold their hand and maintain contact so they feel safe,” she says. “I don’t push them to participate. If I can get them in the room and just stand, that is progress.” As to not take up too much time from class, if a child is too upset to come in, Satterly instead encourages the parent to have the child take a few more minutes and join the class when they are ready.
Students who have separation anxiety may need their caregiver in the room in order to relax, while others may just be a little nervous in a new environment and will likely calm down on their own. “Our teachers are able to quickly determine what level issue this is going to be and act accordingly,” explains Cantor. She encourages her teachers to handle separation problems early in the year so it doesn’t become habitual. She also allows them to use their judgment. “As much as we have rules that the classes that are drop-off are drop-off and parents or caregivers cannot be in the room, on the flip side the most important thing is that the kid has fun,” Cantor says. “Rules are good, but you have to know when to bend them a little to help the child.”
Communicating Restroom Protocols
While a headache for teachers, the “I need to go potty!” problem of children constantly needing to use the restroom can be a way to instill responsibility in students. Some children may actually need to use the restroom during class, while others may want an excuse to see their parents or have become disengaged and need a change of scenery. At the beginning of each class, Satterly tells the parents and the students with kindness, “Please use the bathroom beforehand so you don’t miss out on dancing.” While she asks them to go before class, Satterly never wants a child to be fearful to ask to use the restroom, which could result in an accident, so she tells them that she will always allow them to use the restroom if they ask. If restroom visits become a pattern for a child, she addresses it with the child and parent before or after class.
Similarly, Cantor and her instructors step into the lobby a few minutes before class to communicate her expectations. In her melodic voice she says, “Now is the time to use the potty, because once we start class you won’t be able to.” Then if a child asks to go during class, she is able to gently remind the child that they were told there would not be potty breaks during class. However, Cantor notes that teachers should watch the body language and if that child needs to go, of course they let them.
Teaching Children to Wait Their Turn to Speak
Having not yet attended school, little kids have a hard time knowing when to speak and when to respectfully wait their turn. “You want them to be excited and use expression,” Cantor says, “but they have to be thoughtful of the teacher and the whole group.” She uses phrases like “Can you hold that thought in your head?” and “While we are doing stamps, that is the perfect time to share with me.” This way the child feels heard and knows they will have a chance to speak at another time.
Satterly allows her students to share what they are excited about at the beginning of class. “It gives them a chance to use their voice,” she says. “They tell me what they need so they can focus.” Satterly also makes keeping your voice quiet part of the imagery and creativity of class. She has sweetened up an old phrase and put a fun accompanying gesture with it that the kids love: “Zip it, lock it, and put it in your magic dancing pocket.”
Remember the Foundations You Are Laying
While teachers of early childhood students may feel like they spend most of their time dealing with the trials that come hand in hand with young kids, it is important to remember that the etiquette you are establishing through these situations will be used by your students in both dance and life. “Even when you are 3 years old, this is where you start learning the foundations of taking turns, having patience, you get what you get and you don’t get upset,” says Cantor. This is where the child starts to learn that they are just one piece in the puzzle of a larger community.