J Lindsay Brown Dance

Taps off/Focus on

Teaching Tidbits and more

Stop Yelling, Start Teaching

It’s that class. The ones who won’t ever shut up. If you go to the music system, they talk. If you ask them to change lines or transition to across the floor, they talk. Waiting on the side for their turn, they talk. Stretching? Oh yeah, full blown discussion with their neighbor right in front of your face.

Their first response to any new skill is to start making noise. They don’t hear other students’ questions, so they ask the same questions right after you answered it. They most definitely don’t hear group corrections. They are driving you insane. Also, their dancing suffers, and you are nervous about ever bringing in a guest teacher. And if you have to get a sub, you feel downright embarrassed when you warn the sub that”this group can get chatty” (you know it’s the understatement of the year).

After teaching at camps, schools, community centers, and studios for a decade, I’ve collected a variety of ways to get children to BE QUIET and focus without yelling. Please note that loud is different from screaming, and that full-blown yelling rarely works and is not good for anyone! You can be LOUD and FIRM without yelling.

Many teachers either continue to use quieting tactics that don’t work, or they give up and let their classes just be really chatty. First, for the sake of all other teachers in your studio, and for all other adults this child will eventually interact with, never give up. They must learn to be quiet. Not just to do better in dance class, but to be a human who can learn and pro-socially interact with others. Giving up on this is a disservice to the kids, to yourself, but also to the future. This might sound dramatic, but it’s true.

I won’t get into this too much in this post, but a lot of teachers are not holding their students to reasonable class etiquette. Where do they go wrong?

  • They do not take the time to get control of the class before moving into more complex dance technique (hint: for 5 year olds, and sometimes older ones, the first month is all about learning to take the class, not about the dancing itself).
  • They do not outline expectations clearly, nor do they know what they actually expect or can reasonably expect from a class.
  • They give up on a method too quickly (or not quickly enough), and are inconsistent with rules and demands.
  • They aren’t willing to change their class style or format, even temporarily (and sometimes you need to overhaul your system for a while).

I highly suggest you go take a look at these two posts over at “The Cult of Pedagogy” before you do anything else:
(I know that this link is not about teaching dance. But teaching is teaching. You need to figure out why your students are talking in order to get them to stop. Maybe your class has too much down time, or awkward transitions. Maybe you aren’t clear with your expectations…read this and see what you find out!)

While I’m touting this glorious resource, let me also suggest you read this:

(My feelings on this topic alone could be several posts, but this is much quicker. In short, make sure you are actually dealing with the students in front of you, and step up as the teacher. Blaming the students for being poops doesn’t fix anything , and absolves you of your very real responsibility to figure it out. If something isn’t working, even if it worked for all your other classes, then you have two choices: enjoy a crappy year of crappy dance, or shift something in your approach and gradually get the students to a place where everyone can learn. As a teacher, your responsibility is to do the latter, and frankly why would you want to keep teaching lackluster, miserable students?)

In dance, it is CRITICAL that students learn to be quiet. It’s part of the discipline, and dance is non-verbal. They need to learn to watch and absorb, ask questions at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way, and learn to how to learn movement. If you have read the resources I mentioned above, and you are ready for some specific ideas, then strap in!

Simon Says Method
I use this technique in the studio with kids who are taking their first dance class, in outreach program settings, or even in a youth group setting when there’s a wide mix of adults, teens, and kids.
Say, in a normal tone, something like this:

“If you can hear me touch your nose….if you can hear me touch the floor. If you can hear me stand in first position”.

Keep going until everyone gets their act together. Level changes tend to really get their attention, and you can use it to make them practice specific skills or also quiz them in terminology (you don’t have to do this, but it can be a nice way to multi-task). For older students, especially the teens, sometimes I’ll say something like “If you can hear me, say ‘what’s up’.”

Call and Response
Create a chant. This is especially useful for large groups in a camp setting, and I use several of them in a row as needed. I’ve used variations of this for ages 5+, but it works especially well for the 7-12 year olds.

Examples of “Call and Response”

“When I say ‘over’, you say ‘here’! Over!”
Group: Here
Me: Over
Group: Here

“When I say ready, you say yes. Ready?!”
Group: Yes
Me: Ready
Group: Yes

Then you can use it to get them to do certain actions. If they are saying the thing, they are more likely to just go ahead and do that thing:

“When I say sit, you say down”
“When I say quiet you say shhhhh”

The Ready Position
DRILL them in standing in “the ready position” (for me, that’s usually standing with feet together, arms by their sides). If they are little, use dots or tape so they learn to go to THEIR spot and be ready. You should practice this on the first day of class, and see “how fast we can do this? Let’s try to get really fast!”

Note: for my tap classes, I use the phrase on “taps off, focus on.” We practice this on day one. They stomp around and when I say “taps off, focus on” they stop moving their feet and stand ready. I do this before teaching them a single tap step, and even if it takes a few tries, I will not proceed until they respond quickly and correctly to the verbal prompt. I will even tell them “I am not moving on until we get this right.”

When I want students to be quiet before we run an exercise I say “SHOW ME YOU ARE READY.” If they are talking, I say “you aren’t ready because you are talking. And I will wait until you are ready.” For younger classes I often remind them that “the ready position means you are in your spot, quiet, arms by your sides” (or whatever it is for you). Sometimes they may need this for a few weeks.

Also, this is a good time to point out kids who are doing things right. For example, while the other kids are flailing about, I might say: “I see that Susie is ready, Sandy is ready, Clara is almost…oh there she goes, Clara is ready. Sandy is not ready yet…” They will snap into place a lot faster.

You can even count them. “I see one dancer ready in first….oh now there are two people ready, three, four….hmm…that’s not everyone….oh, I see now everyone is ready.” This gives positive reenforcement to the students who are following directions, and creates social pressure for the others to do the same.

321 Ready!
I developed this “game” out of total frustration while teaching dance residencies in public schools. I was so tired of trying to wrangle huge classes of hyper students into focus, and I realized that I was not getting control over the class until weeks into the residency. I wasn’t starting with the most important part, which was training the class to listen when I spoke. Without that, the rest of my curriculum was a waste of time.

So, I decided to make it a “game” on the first day of class…a game that is always being played and has no end. If I’m subbing a very energetic class, I’ll open with this right after introducing myself and going over expectations. I’ve used it for students as old as 7th grade (oh boy, what a class), but normally I would suggest this for 1st-5th grade.

(If you are concerned this will take up too much time, it won’t. But also, it’s worth every second of that time. Spend time getting the class into a place where everyone can learn and you won’t want to kill them. You’re worth it, and so are they. )

Level 1
Students are standing or sitting, and when you clap (or whatever you signal is) they must snap into the “ready position”. You can make it competitive by pitting them against each other…whether that is boys vs. girls, left side vs. right side, or every student for themselves.

I teach them when they hear me clap, they return the clap and stand ready (there can be variations on this). Whoever isn’t in the position immediately after the clap is done is OUT!

*A note about levels: get them excited to “level up”. Make a big deal about graduating to the next level. Don’t let them do so if they haven’t earned it, and make that clear. They will get stoked.

Level 2
Same goal, but now students move in their spot (wiggling, dancing, whatever) until you give the signal.

Level 3
Now they wiggle and make some sort of sound.

Level 4
Now they move around the room (not touching anyone or anything) and make sound.

Level 5
Now students go have a full blown conversation about a movie or video game (you actually have to give them time to start a real conversation, at first they all pretend to talk–bizarre and hilarious).

Level 6
Put on some music, and see if they can manage it without you turning it off.

Finish this adventure by saying “So this game will be played all class, every class.” Repeat at least the last levels of the game for the next couple of classes to make sure it sticks. Give them praise for being quick and quiet like ninjas. Also, if you are using clapping, consider changing up the rhythm constantly. This will keep it interesting, but also it reenforces rhythm skills. Call them out if they aren’t clapping back in the correct rhythm.

Count Down
I use this for kids up to age 8, and I still have no idea why it helps.

If you give a clear direction “Change into your ballet shoes” or “come out to the center” and they are dragging, chatting, or whatever, start counting down from 15/10. Be loud, clap a rhythm with it.
I’ve never given a clear consequence for not getting there when I reach zero, so I’m not sure why this works! I assume it’s some kind of “don’t let the bomb go off by the countdown reaching 0” instinct deep within us.

However, if they don’t manage it by the time you get to zero, you can go ahead and try the next tactic.

Do over
I use this on kids as young as 4 (up to 18) and it’s made a BIIIIIIG difference.

If they chat during a transition (after expectations have been clear that they must be quiet while going to the side), I will stop everyone and say something like:

“Stop, we need to do that again. I asked for quiet and some people were talking. Go back. Try again.”

“Stop. Dancers do not push to get in line. Everyone gets a turn, that was rude. Go back and do it again, calmly and politely”


Other Thoughts

  • Song Transitions: Some teachers have short songs during transitions (like changing dance shoes in little kid combo classes). They train the students to be ready when the song is finished. This hasn’t worked for me, but it might work for you.
  • Bribery: Occasionally I will do something like “the first two students who have changed into their ballet shoes, are quiet, and are stretching in their spot will get a sticker.” The key to bribery is IT MUST ONLY BE SOMETIMES! If you do it every class, it becomes expected, and becomes both annoying and ineffective. If you want to know more, check out this article.
  • Creative Breaks: If the class is struggling and it is a focus issue, toss in creative/free form exercises throughout the class. For example, after plies, have a short free dance. For across the floor, toss in a strut your stuff challenge. They will work up to being able to stay focused for the whole class
  • Camp Songs: I will probably do a whole post on this, but I have set basic dance warm ups to camp songs. I took over some INSANELY chatty classes mid-year, and I realized that if they were singing, they couldn’t talk to each other! Eventually this class become a solid class, but it took some time.

Those are some of my tools! I hope this was helpful. Let me know what you use to get control of your chatty class.

Until next time,

2 thoughts on “Stop Yelling, Start Teaching”

  1. Thank you for this. I have been teaching
    for 38 years with others teaching also
    and I’m at my wits end ‘cause kids are
    different than when i first opened ! They
    just don’t listen ! I need the money as covid hit me hard and if i retired im afraid i wouldn’t know what to do with myself. In my area the market is saturated and i keep losing students to sports and so many other activities or dance schools. I needed to vent! Thanks!

    1. I hope this is helpful! I’m also trying to figure out how to move forward in this new world. I have started at some new studios and in some ways it is easier to just start fresh with new faces.

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J. Lindsay Brown

Full of tricks and tips gained from a decade of teaching, choreographing, and producing in every setting imaginable!