I am a mom of three kids. But when I began my ballet teaching career I was not a mom of three kids. I was not a mom at all. I was basically a kid who knew nothing and did a great job at hiding that fact. Well, that is, I did a great job of hiding it until I was confronted with a small child who was crying for their mom or dad. Enormous tears spilling all over their face. All the woe of their world put on display for everyone to see and for me to manage.
. . . Right . . .
I imagine most every teacher of young children has encountered this child at least once. If not many, many times. It is likely one of the most frightening situations to come face to face with. Especially for a new teacher or a teacher who lacks ongoing interaction with tiny humans.
Gosh. Those tiny humans can be terribly scary!
Over the years of my early teaching I developed methods of handling the separation anxiety so oft found in preschool classes and these tools did work. However, I was missing one key component that immediately came to me when I journeyed into motherhood.
Right off, I would like to be clear that I don’t believe one must be a mom or a dad in order to manage young children well. It is simply that, for me, it was a defining moment in my teaching methods. It took me from teaching young kids well and handling difficult situations efficiently to nurturing young kids through their learning process and using difficult situations to my advantage.
We can all use some tricks up our sleeve where preschoolers are concerned, so I openly choose to share mine with you all.
My Separation Anxiety Checklist:
- Invite familiarity into the classroom. Be that a stuffed animal, favorite toy, beloved bracelet, etc. Having an item with them they know and love is an excellent way to proactively keep this brand of anxiety at bay. I choose to work these items into class time. For example: If a child has chosen to bring his special superhero cape in with him I will use this as a jumping off point for building a story for the next dance we do (small sautés become building strong superhero legs). We will talk about the cape and superheroes and I will get them all excited about this story and this cape. By doing so it removes the label “distraction” from the cape and replaces it with “teaching aid”.
- Identify the feelings. Most younger children don’t understand their feelings much less what they are feeling. It is our job to help them identify what they are feeling. If a student is not wanting to leave her mom, kneel down so she can see your face and say something like, “It can feel scary to go away from your mom” or “I can see you feel sad”.
- Validate the feelings. No one in this whole wide world wishes their tears or pain to be dismissed but we are so quick to behave in just this way with the smallest of people. After identifying the feelings, we must follow through and validate the feelings. Continue your conversation with something along the lines of, “I am here to help you feel safe and have so much fun. When you see your mom after ballet class, you will have such exciting stories to tell her!”
- Ask permission to touch. This one is really important to me. Adults rarely ask a young child for permission. But when it comes to touch, we absolutely must as this teaches autonomy and consent. After validating the feelings, we are ready to help guide them into the classroom and at this point we instinctively take their hand but I suggest asking first, “Can I take your hand and show you our ballet elephant, Mr. Tippie Toes?”. If they say yes, then you are in! If they say no or make no response, you have more work to do. “That’s ok. How about I bring Mr. Tippie Toes over to you? He would love to meet you and see your pretty rainbow headband! You stay right there with your dad and I will go get him.”
NOTE: Having an item in your classroom (like Mr. Tippie Toes) can be very helpful. Once the item is in their hand, you can hold the item which they are also holding and lead them into the classroom without actually touching the student.
- Sense the personality. This requires a great deal of intuition which, unless it comes naturally, can only be achieved through practice, practice, practice. But nothing can beat a teacher with excellent intuition, so I highly recommend building this skill. When you can sense the student’s personality and what their needs are you are far more likely to succeed in helping them feel safe and far less likely to offer a suggestion that pushes them further away. Make the conversation about them and find a way to connect on a personal level. The sooner you can grasp who this small person is, the sooner you will be able to help them flourish in your class.
- Stay focused on the task at hand. Ultimately, our task as preschool ballet teachers is not to teach ballet. It is to give these kids a positive experience that can then nurture their growth in this world. Ballet is simply the chosen vehicle in this particular moment. It is very easy to lose sight of this and fall trap to treating the behavior and forgetting the person. If the classroom environment is too much for them to take, that is ok. We are not failures as teachers if a child is not ready. Remaining focused on the goal will help us determine if the child is ready and simply needs more time and help, or if they really need to wait a couple more months or even a year.
And now that key component that I discovered when I became a mom:
- Reassure the parent. Reassure the parent. Reassure the parent. Over and over and over again. For many kids, this is their first experience away from their parents. Which means it might also be the parents’ first experience away from their kid (if this is their first child). Separation anxiety is just as real for parents as it is for their kids; however, it typically manifests itself in a very different manner. When you see parents coaxing their young child into the studio when the child is clinging for their life it can mean the parent has fears of their own. Afraid if they give in to this anxiety in their child they will be damaging their kid (they won’t). Afraid if they give in to this anxiety in them it means they are overly protective (they aren’t). The plain fact of the matter is we must help these parents trust their instincts. Help them not fall prey to the “shoulds” or “well, all the other kids are doing fine”. It all begins with the parents. They are our most valuable tool when it comes to their kids. They are our allies. We want and need them on our team. We must not ostracize them and we must create an atmosphere that is inclusive to all types of kids. Free of shame and comparing. When the connection is made between the teacher and parent that is when the magic can take place between the teacher and student. And when that magic happens, ballet is there for the taking!