Miracle Worker

Seven tips for teaching special needs students

From Dance Teacher magazine
May 2009
By Karen White

The rewards of working with special needs students can be tremendous, but doing so requires attention and preparation. We asked experienced teachers to share their advice.

Learn about each student.
Use pre-enrollment screenings or pre-application forms to find out all you can about the student’s particular disability, his or her physical challenges, special requirements and personality. Ask parents about favorite things, likes and dislikes, what sets a child off and what has a calming effect. “We had one autistic girl who loved heavy metal rock music,” says Christine Rich of the Christine Rich Dance Academy and Performing Arts Center in Savoy, Illinois. “We didn’t have any at the studio, so we had to find some. We played it, and she calmed right down.”

Choose whether to separate special needs students, or to integrate them into an existing class.
There are reasons to consider both appropriate โ€” it depends on your particular students. Rich discovered that her seven Down’s Syndrome students functioned well together in a group. However, her autistic dancers were uncomfortable in any kind of class setting, so she teaches them privately. At Kennedy Dance Theatre in Webster, Texas, Director Mary Lee Kennedy separates her 45-minute special needs classes by age (age 3 to 7, then age 7 and up) rather than by diagnosis, and includes 12 in each. Elizabeth Fernandez-Flores, director of the New York City-based New American Youth Ballet, works with students on an individual basis before integrating them into standard classes. Those with unacceptable or violent behavior are taught in 15-minute private lessons. In the Boston Ballet School’s “Adaptive Dance” program, Down’s Syndrome students have their own class. “This is their one opportunity to have fun with friends like themselves,” says Michelina C. Cassella, director of the Department of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Services at the Children’s Hospital Boston.

Ensure there is adequate assistance during class.
A parent accompanies all special needs students to class or private lessons as Rich’s studio, and at Kennedy’s Dance, every student has a “buddy,” an advanced dancer that helps the students manipulate movement. In the Boston Ballet School’s program, each class of a dozen Down’s syndrome students is assisted by a teacher, physical therapist and several adult volunteers.

Keep the dance movements simple.
Both autistic and Down’s Syndrome children can generally do simple movements, such as walking, hopping, jumping, demi-plies, tendus, galloping, heel steps and toe steps, along with patterns, like four marches, four claps. A general rule is to teach a few levels lower than the student’s age. For example, for an 8-year-old, pay age-appropriate music, but try techniques at a 5-year-old level. Curriculum can vary. The younger class at Kennedy Dance studies tap, ballet, and tumbling, while the older class does hip hop and tumbling. Again, talking to parents is important, since some children should not be attempting somersaults because of neck concerns.

Adapt to special requirements.
The structure and flow of class will vary depending on your particular students. Rich, for instance, found that autistic students require more attention to transitions and more visuals, such as breaking the classroom clock into colored segments. She tells her students, “We will work on this step while the clock is blue, then go on to another step when the hand points to red,” and she also allows plenty of time to adjust to new concepts. It is often necessary for autistic children to exit the class to calm down. At Boston Ballet, the piano accompanist proved to be a distraction and was quickly replaced with a percussionist beating and strong rhythms. Also, the teachers stands with his back to the students rather than facing the class, because the students better imitate the reflect movement. To teach right from left, a teacher can place colored tape on ballet shoes. To help students stay focused, some dancing can be done while sitting in chairs.

Decide what type of performance outlet best suits your special students.
Whether special needs students participate in the recital is an individual studio choice. Kennedy put special thought into her recital experience. The special needs students were provided a separate area in the dressing rooms, where parents were allowed. The class performed very early in the show, “buddies” danced onstage, and the children could leave immediately after their performance. Rich, on the other hand, after discussions with parents, decided her special needs students would be more comfortable giving a small in-class performance.

Find the right teachers.
Cassella knew the success of Boston Ballet’s Adaptive Dance program depended in part on finding the right teachers. Gianni Di Marco, a company corps de ballet member, has the “right personality and temperament โ€” enthusiastic, patient and creative, with a sense of humor,” she says. Other teachers, such as Jennifer Holbert of Kennedy Dance Theatre have a lifelong interest in working with special needs children. A good rule of thumb is to look for teachers who have worked regularly with children ages 5 and under.

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