Using Dance To Promote SEL Skills

Bringing dance into the classroom with simple exercises can help elementary students develop social and emotional learning skills

Last school year, veteran teacher Jennifer Grau decided to introduce dance as part of her effort to build bonds between her special education students and the general education second graders at her school on Chicago’s West Side.

Using videos to help her students learn a few simple steps, Grau was able to get them working with both preferred and non-preferred partners. The energy of the music and the students’ focus on the steps helped them forget about any differences they felt between themselves and their classmates.

Grau’s new strategy worked like a charm. “It was the first time all the kids were engaged and collaborating without any fights or complaints,” she said. The lessons helped students explore ideas of diversity and social engagement, and they finished by reflecting on how the activity helped them get along better.

The most successful social and emotional learning (SEL) programs use active forms of learning to teach students, and evidence suggests that dance outpaces other forms of physical activity and other forms of arts learning when it comes to improving SEL outcomes. Despite the evidence, dance is not included or prioritized in the curriculum of the vast majority of schools in the US and around the world.

Two Left Feet? No Problem!

In many schools, the greatest barrier to bringing dance into classrooms is a lack of comfort with dance on the part of classroom teachers. For most students, permission to move—especially with music—offers considerable stress relief and an immediate boost to their sense of optimism and joy.

Luckily, there are resources that can take the pressure off teachers to lead the activities. Dance can be used to foster students’ intrapersonal and interpersonal SEL skills, as well as skills like responsible decision-making.

Intrapersonal SEL skills

Self-awareness and self-management are fundamentally rooted in the body, making dance an excellent tool for building such competencies as emotional awareness, accurate self-perception, and impulse control.

Using dance to identify emotions: Dance and movement can be a great way for students to explore how emotions are shown and felt in their bodies. Give your student this prompt: “Emotion is a word that describes the feelings you have. How does your face show emotion? How do other parts of your body show emotion?” Next, invite students to follow along to the dance or movement video you’ve selected. After the students perform the dance together, ask them to choose a favorite move from the dance and practice that move while showing an emotion they select. They can do this in pairs—each student should guess what emotion their partner is trying to convey.

Conclude the activity by prompting students to reflect on what their body feels like when they are showing the emotion they select. By thinking about what an emotion feels and looks like in their body, they become more self-aware and attuned to their emotions.

Interpersonal SEL Skills

Many dance and movement activities promote teamwork and cooperation and provide rich opportunities for developing relationship skills and social awareness.

Using dance for communication: In this activity, students consider how they communicate both verbally and nonverbally, and they practice listening and responding to input from others.

To start, give students this prompt: “When we communicate, we use words and body language to let other people know our thoughts and feelings. How can you communicate with words? How can you communicate with body language?” Next, as in the activity above, invite the whole class to follow along to the dance or movement video you’ve selected.

Finally, have students practice giving each other feedback with active listening skills. Have them try the dance or movement while facing a partner, and think about how they can be friendly with their partner as they work together. After trying some steps together, prompt them to talk to each other about how it went—was it easy? hard? fun? silly? While they’re listening to their partner’s feedback, they should make eye contact and smile in encouragement. Prompt them to end the activity by thanking each other and exchanging a handshake or high five.

Responsible Decision-Making

Dance and movement can be a wonderful way for students to work on problemsolving and to develop the ability to evaluate and reflect, which in turn can affect their thinking on things like their responsibility to help make the world a better place.

Using dance to promote good citizenship: In this activity, students explore ways to make healthy choices and then identify a personal “superpower” that can help make the world better. Give your students this prompt: “It’s important to act in ways that are healthy and positive for ourselves and others. How can you be safe and speak up for others?”

Invite students to follow along to the dance or movement video you’ve selected. Once they’ve got the moves down, have them identify a superpower they could use to make the world better and embody the superpower by adding it to the movement activity. They should think of a pose that will show the superpower, and then discuss their ideas.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Considerations

When choosing resources for dance or movement-based activities, keep in mind that dance can be useful in fostering cross-cultural understanding and respect: By studying dance forms that originate in other parts of the world, students gain understanding of the history, identities, and values of others. Dance can also help students overcome cultural and linguistic obstacles because of its focus on nonverbal communication. For English language learners, in particular, dance provides the opportunity to express themselves through the body and has been shown to bolster their self-esteem.

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