I can still vividly remember being interviewed for my first job as a ballet teacher. My director asked if I would be willing to teach “the little ones”. One side of me—the arrogant, naive, “I’m too good to teach little ones” side—hesitated to say yes because I really wanted to teach advanced ballet: the place where I left off. The other side really wanted to get a job, so I went ahead and said “Of course!” without knowing much at all about teaching this age group. How hard could it be? I know ballet, and I’m bigger than they are. . . I will always win! I thought.
Boy, was I in for a surprise! This incredible group of little people have taught me so much in the past 8 years of teaching. It is not easy, and it is not necessarily for everyone! However, I do believe that, with the right information, enough patience, some practical rules, and a genuine love for your students, anyone can learn to be an excellent teacher of “littles”, and even come to enjoy it as I have!
Practical Classroom Rules for Pre-Ballet
I just want to lay out a few things that have helped me. Some of these will seem obvious, others will seem unattainable, but if these rules are followed, the classroom atmosphere will be much calmer, and you and your students will enjoy learning together!
- Children must not be allowed to hit, kick, bite, or scratch other children. This should go without saying, but learning to keep their hands to themselves does not always come naturally to this age group. It can also apply to hugs, hand holding, arm touching and other such distractions. They shouldn’t harm each other, of course, but they also need to learn to respect their classmates’ personal space even when they are trying to show affection. This is not the right time and place for that.
- Never assign blame to anyone. Even if you know who did what, try not to point that out. Instead, respond with something like, “I am sorry this happened. We need to get on with class.” Separate the two children if needed. Watch to prevent further aggression.
- Separate special friends, and keep them separated until they are able to interact with others in the class also. This happens automatically each class. Even though you may have spots set out, friends will always choose to sit together. There are two reasons to avoid this: 1) These friends can make others feel left out, so they need to learn to make new friends each class, and 2) It is inevitable that these two friends will be a distraction to each other and to the rest of class. Perhaps, as the year progresses, they show maturity in this area. You may then “treat” them to sitting together, but only after you have noticed a change in behavior from both children.
- Assign partners, places in class, turns to dance, etc. You may decide to use Partner Cards in class so that the choosing of partners is completely random. Often, letting the children choose can create a false sense of authority in the room. You are in charge, you choose what happens, when and with whom. Children must be treated equally, and must KNOW that they are treated equally.
- Discourage “showing off.” It is the selfish side of performing. In my classes, I don’t even allow for it to happen. There may be a brief “free dance” moment in class, in which the students are allowed to dance freely about the room. This is a good time for them to show you what they can do. Any other time in the class would not be appropriate, however, and the students must know that. Not to mention the likelihood that whatever they are showing you is not something they should be trying to do at this age level anyway!
- Children must respect each other’s places in class and in taking turns. This is very difficult for this age group. The youngest ones, your three year-old students, will have a particularly hard time because of their excitement to perform with their friends. Taking turns is a very important skill to learn. It will be worth it to spend the time it takes to teach them how to stand in the right place and dance at the right time. Watch to be sure things happen correctly.
- Teach them to help each other to feel better. There will inevitably be crashes and bumps along the way as your students learn space awareness. Sometimes, it can even be a painful bump on the head or stepping on another’s toes. Encourage apology and forgiveness so that there is no room for bitterness or bad feelings: “Eva didn’t mean to bump you. Eva, tell her you are sorry you bumped. Kate, tell her it’s OK.”
- Let a shy child have the right to be shy. Don’t label them shy, just accept them as they are. It’s amazing to me how many moms of the “shy kids” come up to me and tell me how much they are enjoying my class! They speak less than one word the whole class, but you never know, they may go home and float on air after class because of the wonderful time they had! The less attention that is given to their being different, the happier they will be.
- Accept each child as doing the best they can at that moment, and give them credit for effort and accomplishment. Each child is at a different place in their development. No two children develop the same, so there may be two children, born on the same day who have a completely different set of skills and completely different backgrounds. This is totally natural and to be expected, of course! Without the proper reinforcement from you, the students may struggle with something, let negative thoughts creep in, and they may let those thoughts affect how they feel about ballet class in general. Let them know you believe in them and that you think they are doing great!
- Let them learn. Let them sometimes experiment with finding how to make their muscles do the movements. That is one very important concept that I learned too late in my teaching: you do not always need to correct! Some may catch on very quickly, others may feel awkward and silly for a few weeks as they learn a new skill. This is OK. Teach them about what is happening in their bodies, and then let it be. Children need room to make mistakes. This is how they learn.
- Props that are argued or fought over, even for an instant, are put away and the activity discontinued for that week. No comment need be made. They will know why. I also do this for props that are a distraction. I love to use scarfs, wands, tambourines, etc. as we march around the Dancer’s Circle, but there are some students who will find this to be a huge distraction. Just put the props away “until we know how to use them the right way.”
- Treats to eat are not a good idea in dance class. Sweets on top of exercise are not good for anyone’s muscles. An obvious reason for avoiding this type of reward is that some children may have diabetes, or food allergies which can be serious. A sticker for attendance, given out at the end of class, is OK. Other ideas include handouts to take home and color, hand stamps, or short homework assignments attractively written or drawn. They will be appreciated and remembered.
Last, but not least, remember that you are teaching a whole person each time they come into class. You are shaping a young lady or gentleman to function well with others in the world around them. Dance class is just one of those important, key moments in a student’s life where they soak in what you are teaching them. Their learning here will affect them the rest of the week, too, so remember to be gracious, patient and full of love for these young individuals.