Neurodiversity in Dance

May 18 2020

To celebrate Neurodiversity Week I would like to share my thoughts on teaching dance to people with ADD/ADHD, ASD and Dyslexia. I am not an expert in this field and the content is by no means revolutionary. However, my hope is that dance teachers may use this as a resource to help them implement some of the suggested strategies into their own teaching practice.

High quality teaching, differentiated for individual pupils, is the first step in responding to pupils who have or may have SEN. Additional intervention and support cannot compensate for a lack of good quality teaching.

Department of Education, 2015

My philosophy of dance teaching is that everybody has the capacity to dance. Although I uphold these pedagogical views and always endeavour to accommodate individual learners, it can admittedly be challenging to meet the needs of people with neurodiverse conditions in the usual setting of a dance class. However, as an advocate for inclusive teaching practice, I have chosen to undertake this line of enquiry as a means to research and reflect on how I could modify and improve my teaching practice to accommodate for the needs of such students.

My current teaching portfolio is varied in that I teach across the educational, private and pre-vocational dance sectors. My students range in age, ability, motivation and some are considered neurodiverse, meaning they have been diagnosed with ADHD, Autism or Dyslexia. Therefore, I hope to offer strategies that accommodate for these neurodiverse learners within a class of neurotypical students. I will examine the viability of such strategies and consider the challenges of inclusive practice, as I appreciate that I have an equal duty to all of my students – both neurodiverse and neurotypical.

There are many variables across my current teaching portfolio, but for the sake of brevity I will approach this line of enquiry from a generic standpoint. That is, I will not differentiate between strategies for each dance sector, nor will I differentiate for varying age groups. Although I appreciate that such factors may impact one’s teaching strategies and expectations in practice. Rather, I will offer strategies for children and young people (CYP) in general. By a similar token, I recognise that not all proposed strategies will be appropriate for all learners. Indeed, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are some commonalities amongst CYP with neurodiverse conditions.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD and/or ADHD)

An educator who understands ADHD and learning disabilities can make a meaningful difference in children’s lives.

ADDitude Mag, 2020

ADD/ADHD is a neurodiverse condition that reduces executive functioning and impacts one’s behaviour.  CYP with ADD/ADHD may present with:

  • Hyperactivity – fidgeting, unable to sit still, excessive physical moving, excessive talking.
  • Impulsivity – acting without thinking, interrupting conversations, blurting out, difficulty awaiting turn, impatient, lacking self-control.
  • Inattention – easily distracted, short attention span, doesn’t seem to listen, disorganised, forgetful, loses things, often late.
  • Weak Executive Functioning – poor working memory, difficulty with task initiation, slow cognitive processing speed.
  • Low Frustration Tolerance – difficulty controlling emotions, easily giving up, short fuse, repeating misbehavior.

(NHS 2020; Williams 2020; Zeigler Dendy 2020).

Possible teaching strategies that accommodate for CYP with ADHD/ADD include:

Minimising distractions by considering the learner’s spacing in the studio…

  • Place learner: near myself/teaching assistant/other learner with good attention; and away from: doors/windows/learning resources that are not in use/other possible distractions.
  • When working in lines/at the barre, place learner towards the front and/or center.
  • Consider the use of the mirror – does the mirror distract the learner? If so, perhaps cover the mirror or face away from it. If using the mirror for self-check purposes, focus the learner’s attention using succinct instructions.
  • Try to distinguish what the learner’s main distracters are to combat them from becoming easily distracted.

Managing Behaviour…

Teachers can’t actually control their students’ behaviour. That’s because the only behaviour a person can control is his or her own.

Shari Gent in ADDitude Mag, 2020

With this in mind:

  • Incorporate mindfulness into lessons and provide opportunities for reflection.
  • Embed and promote values such as kindness and perseverance.
  • Establish behavioural expectations from the outset.
  • Do not allow learners to enter the studio space if they are not ready to learn. Employ Rob Plevin’s method to line students up outside the studio (Plevin, 2013).
  • Employ operant conditioning strategies (Skinner, 1938).
  • Use the Zones of Regulation framework (Kuypers, 2019).
  • Make good behaviour a game/competition and a class wide goal – as not to single out individual learners.
  • Ensure rewards and/or reprimands are instant.
  • Use student demonstration as a method to reward good work.
  • Reward effort, over and above ability, promoting growth mindset (Dweck, 2017).
  • Provide regular individual feedback about behaviour and skills. Ensure feedback is positive, constructive, relevant and succinct.
  • Meet the learner at eye level – if students are younger this means getting down to their level to address them.
  • When giving instructions, repeat them and have the learner repeat them back. Ensure instructions are succinct.
  • Set time specific mini goals to help keep the learner on track.
  • Provide the learner with some responsibility by giving them a task/job to do.

Promoting attention span by modifying/being aware of one’s teaching methods…

  • Maintain a good lesson pace.
  • Continuously change facings and/or rotate lines.
  • Move around the studio to help redirect attention that drifts.
  • Vary the intonation and/or volume of one’s voice. 
  • Use a variety of visual and tactile teaching resources and props.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to answer questions and share their ideas.
  • Using cold calling as a questioning strategy.
  • Continuously change and vary the type of enchaînement – do not spend too long on the same type of movement vocabulary.
  • Ensure learners are not stationary for long periods of time. Reduce the amount of time spent at the barre and/or intersperse barre work with travelling enchaînement. Be willing to change up the conventional structure of a Ballet class.
  • Vary teaching styles – i.e. do not command style teach for an hour. Make use of Mosston and Ashworth’s (2002) full spectrum of teaching styles – incorporate peer learning and student-centered styles.
  • Give learners choices since “children with ADHD who are given choices for completing an activity produce more work, are more compliant, and act less negative” (Ziegler Dendy & ADHD Editorial Board, 2020).

On reflection, high quality teaching is the first step in accommodating for learners with ADD/ADHD. The strategies highlighted above are all hallmarks of quality teaching practice and are also effective with neurotypical learners. By leveraging them, it is conceivable that one could maintain a balanced class while simultaneously accommodating for the needs of a learner with ADD/ADHD and of the neurotypical learners. However, individual circumstances must be considered on a case-by-case basis, as there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. To elaborate, the age and severity of the learner’s ADD/ADHD would need to be taken into consideration, to truly assess to what extent one could be inclusive or if a teaching assistant would be required to provide additional support.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Autism and Asperger’s are neurodiverse conditions that affect an individual’s perception of the world. People with ASD interact and communicate in a different way to neurotypical people. They are affected by ‘The Triad of Impairments’, which encompasses:

  • Social Communication – difficulty interpreting non-verbal and verbal language.
  • Social Imagination – rigid thinking and a need for structure.
  • Social Interaction – difficulty interacting and reading others.

People with ASD may also exhibit:

  • A lack of empathy.
  • Repetitive behaviour.
  • Intense and specific interests.
  • A high sensitivity to changes in routine.
  • A misunderstanding of facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.
  • Sensory sensitivity – hypersensitive and/or hypo-sensitive to sound, touch, sight, smells, tastes, balance and/or body awareness.
  • A literal understanding of language – idioms, metaphors and sarcasm can be confusing.

(Drakeford 2020; National Autistic Society 2016; NHS 2020).

The use of the word ‘spectrum’ means that the extent to which an individual is affected will vary from person to person and symptoms may range from mild to debilitating.

To quote the choreographer Victoria Marks:

If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve only met one child with autism.

Victoria Marks in Mary Ellen Hunt’s article “Autism in the Studio”, Dance Teacher Magazine, 2012

With this in mind, I offer generic teaching strategies, but appreciate that these would need to be tailored to the individual in practice. Such strategies could include:

  • Ensure consistency in environment – i.e. in the same studio, with the same accompanist and teaching assistant every lesson. If this is not possible for whatever reason, prepare the learner by informing them of this ASAP.
  • Ensure consistency in routines – learners with ASD may take comfort in the conventional structure of a Ballet class. Neurotypical learners appreciate routine too, so this can be beneficial to the whole class.
  • Ensure verbal language is succinct – avoid the use of jokes, sarcasm, exaggerated language and metaphors that maybe misinterpreted or misunderstood.
  • Combine verbal language with physical demonstration.
  • Simplify communication and allowing for plenty of cognitive processing time.
  • Incorporate the learner’s interests into the lesson somehow.
  • Be extra sensitive to using hands on feedback with a learner with ASD. If it is appropriate to use, always ask for permission and approach the learner head on.
  • Be extra sensitive when setting a creative and/or collaborative task. Provide the learner with a choice to work on their own or with their peers.
  • Allow the learner time out. They should not have to ask permission for this, but can simply remove themselves as and when they require it.
  • Find out what the learner’s triggers are and be considerate of this to help prevent meltdowns.
  • Practice mindfulness to help make emotions more concrete concepts. Provide opportunities for reflection, such as a plenary.
  • Establishing a good working relationship with the learner’s parents and other teachers.

In theory, it is conceivable to employ the above listed strategies to be inclusive of a learner with ASD within a usual dance class. (Indeed, I currently teach a handful of learners with ASD and have never had a problem of inclusivity.) However, this could be a different situation in practice – ASD affects different people in different ways.  Therefore, one can only truly determine if inclusive practice would be appropriate, depending on the individual in concern. There is a plethora of research and evidence to suggest that dance positively impacts people with ASD (Amos 2013; Autism Live 2014; Ballet for All Kids 2020; Dapretto 2006; Devereaux 2014; Ehrenreich 2019; Hollow 2019; Hunt 2012; Iskra 2019; Mackrell 2015; Mateos-Mareno & Atencia-Doña 2013) and therefore I would always endeavour to be as inclusive as possible. However, my responsibility is ultimately to the whole class.  It is my duty to ensure that all students – both neurodiverse and neurotypical – are able to learn in a safe environment.

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a neurodiverse condition that impacts a person’s ability to read and write. A person with dyslexia may:

  • Confuse the order of letters and write letters the wrong way.
  • Have difficulty with spelling.
  • Have poor phonological awareness.
  • Read/write very slowly.
  • Have difficulty understanding written information.
  • Find it difficult to follow a sequence of directions.
  • Have difficulty with organisation and planning.
  • Have a short attention span.
  • Have low self-esteem.

(NHS 2020).

In a dance class setting a person with dyslexia may:

  • Confuse right from left, over and under, etc.
  • Have difficulty remembering enchaînement.
  • Find reversing or working out enchaînement on the other side challenging.
  • Be out of time (Drakeford 2020).

Therefore, possible teaching strategies that accommodate for CYP with dyslexia include:

  • Using a visual aid to prevent confusion of right and left – I once knew a teacher who would wear different coloured socks to help. Something to this effect would be beneficial for learners with dyslexia.
  • Promoting recall of enchaînement through chunking (Coyle, 2010), repetition and the ‘we do it fast, we do it slow, we ask questions, away we go!’ method.  
  • Not solely giving verbal instructions – always accompany these with a visual cue.
  • Promoting recall through use of imagery and visual and/or tactile resources.
  • Allowing plenty of time for cognitive processing.
  • Being willing to assist and facilitate the working out of the reverse/second side, etc.
  • Physically demonstrating enchaînement in tempo to promote learner’s understanding of the timing.

The strategies listed above are appropriate for both dyslexic and neurotypical learners. They can be easily embedded and intertwined within one’s teaching practice, without taking away from the class as a whole. Therefore, I do not foresee any issues of being inclusive of a learner with dyslexia within in a dance class. In fact, Darcey Bussell DBE has dyslexia and actually accredits much of her success to it:

For me, in my life, dyslexia has been a little bit of a blessing. It helped me find my strength and directed me towards what I really wanted to do.

Darcey Bussell, 2016

If for no other reason than this, young dancers should not be written off simply because they have dyslexia.

Conclusion

The explored strategies are particularly effective for the respective neurodiverse learners. However, I would argue that all of the aforementioned strategies could also be considered appropriate for neurotypical learners. It is therefore not only conceivable, but practical to include a learner with ADD/ADHD, Autism or Dyslexia within a usual dance class with other neurotypical students. The extent to which the balance of the class would be affected, in terms of being able to accommodate for all students’ learning needs, would depend on the individual neurodiverse learner in concern. Indeed, the true challenge for any teacher is and has always been to differentiate for every learner’s needs simultaneously. This is true, irrespective of whether their students have neurodiverse conditions. For this reason, high quality teaching truly is the primary strategy to enable inclusive teaching practice. As long as students are safe and able to learn, one must strive to provide high quality dance education, that is inclusive of learners with neurodiverse conditions.

Bibliography

Books & Articles

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Becker, K. (2013) Dancing Through the School Day: How Dance Catapults Learning inElementary Education. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. London: Routledge.

Coyle, D. (2010) The Talent Code – Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown. London: Arrow Books.

Dapretto, M. et al. (2006) Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nature Neuroscience. January 2006, Volume 9, Article 1. Nature Publishing Group.

Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset – Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. London: Robinson.

Mateos-Mareno, D. & Atencia-Doña, L. (2013) Effect of a combined dance/movement and music therapy on young adults diagnosed with severe autism. The Arts in Psychotherapy. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

McMahon, S. et al. (2003) Evaluation Review – Basic Reading Through Dance Program: The Impact on First-Grade Students’ Basic Reading Skills. University of Hertfordshire: Sage Publications.

Mosston, M. & Ashworth, S. (2002) Teaching Physical Education, Fifth Edition. London:  Pearson.

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#raisethebarre #teachballetwell #neurodiversityweek #inclusivedance #neurodiversedancers #dyslexia #ADD #ADHD #Autism #ASD #raiseawareness