Dance by its nature is energizing! But it can also be a productive way to build the ability for children to self-calm. Moving from highly excited to calm and relaxed is a skill that will stand children in good stead well into their adult life.
In addition, this self-regulation skill means that your dance classroom is a place that is conducive to productive creative collaboration. Without the ability to remain calm, collaboration in pairs or small groups is difficult. It also effects dance performance and assessment when experiencing high pressure situations. Fear of dance performance is quite common in children and with giving children strategies it can extend to fear of making any kind of presentation.
If calming activities are a part of everyday dance classroom protocols this becomes the children ‘go to’ behaviour if they are under stress or in a state of high excitement.
Calming the body and brain for dance
Often children’s brains and bodies are overwhelmed, anxious, worried, or angry due to experiences outside the classroom. These can lead to challenging behaviours that may not at first be recognizable as what the child is experiencing emotionally.
These behaviours are challenging not only to the child, but to the other children around them and to the teacher. We have a sensory experience in our bodies when we see another person struggling. Hearing loud voices and slamming objects and witnessing other challenging behaviour leads to tension and tightness in the body. This kind of dysregulation can be contagious as other children in the classroom engages their nervous system to protect themselves.
Fostering relationships in the Primary dance classroom
Calming your dance environment can sometimes about ensuring that children have the skills to work together. When doing creative movement activities, children are collaborating and creating. This requires high level brain function, therefore you need to establish some guidelines for working together.
Some simple personal boundaries and social skills are good to articulate early in the year. Here are three favourites.
- Smile, this is the easiest way for relationships to work.
- Give each other space until you know you are comfortable with being physically close. Children can try saying, “Give me a minute I just need to settle in”
- If you don’t want to collaborate with someone, be kind about how you say it. Children can try saying, “Not right now, but maybe later”
Teachers can model using these same phrases. If children are hearing the words, they are learning this dialogue. This creates a calming and collaborative atmosphere in the classroom. A calm teacher fosters a calm class.
Also, by teachers ensuring that every student has a voice you can reduce heightened behaviour. This demonstrates to children that you don’t have to be the loudest or the most confident to have your say. Meaningful conversations about collaboration are always a great place to start.
Calming dance activities
Giving children the skills to practice before they need to apply them is crucial for self-calming. Here are three dance activities to try in your classroom. They may be adapted to cater for different ages and abilities.
Breath work in the dance class is important for so many reasons, but these breathing activities are fantastic for multiple age groups. They may use toys in some of the activities, but you can replace them with bean bags for older children. It asks them to use their imagination and to visualize.
Rhythmic Movement Practices
Rhythmic movement is essential for calming in younger children but can also be used for older age groups. Associate Professor Kate Williams research on the benefits of rhythmic movement in the early childhood supports the effects of this type of movement for children.
This movement may be as simple as walking to a set rhythm. Try taking the class outside and walk in time to different music around some different ground surfaces. Have them observe the different sounds their feet make as they walk.
Walking and clapping rhythms also help slow the body and the mind as they connect the hands and the feet or other parts of the body. Try adding in a swaying or rocking movement.
Another movement that can be used to calm the ‘flight or fright’ reaction in children is using swimming visualizations and movements. Standing with your feet slightly apart, make slow breaststroke movements with your arms. Then introduce a knee bend followed by taking a deep breath in as you straighten your knees. Keep the rhythm slow and even.
The work of Paul Ekman in the 1970’s identified 6 primary emotions; anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear, and sadness. He later expanded these in 1990 to include a seventh, contempt. Being able to identify these emotions through expressions, body language, and behaviour is important for children in responding appropriately in group collaborative dance activities.
Using dance activities that model showing emotions gives children permission to feel and to talk about their emotions. Rather than being unable to identify how they are responding in stressful situations, they can pause and identify the emotion, and then respond to it appropriately.
Discussing calming strategies outside heightened emotional moments allows children to practice these responses. It also signals to children that you are listening to them. Not just what they say but what they may not have the words to express.
Dance responding activities where students watch dancers perform and then interpret what they were saying through movements, helps them to ‘read’ emotions that are not spoken.
Some questions you may ask in response to dance works could include,
How is the dancer feeling?
How can you tell they are feeling that?
Can you show the same feeling through your face or through a movement?
Have you ever felt this way?
Dancing your way to a calm classroom
By creating a calm dance classroom we support children’s creativity but also teach valuable emotional and relationship skills. Teachers and students can experience the joy of movement in a tranquil teaching and learning space.
New Dance Teaching Ideas membership resources will soon be available to support social and emotional skill development in your dance classroom.