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Leading Today’s Teens

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Successfully Balancing High Expectations with Care and Kindness

What are the teen dancers of 2023 like compared to the teens we knew and taught back in 2019?

“They’re more unsure of themselves,” says Natalia Hill, lead teacher at Expressions Dance & Movement Center in Santee, California. “Whether it’s trying a new move or answering an open-ended question, there’s a lot more hesitation. Pre-pandemic, they were always so eager to talk about anything, but that’s really changed.”

The decline in self-confidence that Natalia has noticed is hardly surprising. A U.S. Surgeon General Advisory, “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” released in 2021 stated: “Recent research covering 80,000 youth globally found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20 percent experiencing anxiety symptoms.”

As dance educators and studio owners look to rebuild teen dancers’ self-assurance in the wake of the COVID crisis, another opportunity presents itself: the freedom to reintroduce policies encouraging personal accountability. That’s great news for teens and their families, because gaining the confidence to take on increased responsibility—what psychologists call building a sense of self-efficacy—has been proven to positively impact teens’ mental health.

Additionally, according to Charles A. Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, moments of major transition—like emerging from a global pandemic—can be an ideal time to introduce new patterns of behavior. That’s because the brain is exponentially more open to changes in habits when other changes are already occurring.

Moving on from the back and forth of COVID-era policies and looking ahead to planning the next dance season, seize this chance to serve teens’ needs as human beings growing up in a challenging world and hold their efforts to the highest standards possible. Here’s how.

Agree to achieve

In human development, one of the most important tasks of being a teenager is to push for greater independence and autonomy. Use this tendency to everyone’s benefit by framing studio expectations as an agreement that dancers actively choose to enter into, rather than arbitrary rules chosen by authority figures.

As assistant director for Pro Am Dance Studio and Boca Dance Studio (sister studios located in south Florida), Katie Westrich has competition team members agree to a code of conduct at the start of each season. She finds that post-COVID teens seeking more agency in their lives welcome the opportunity to be active participants in shaping the rules. While these policies stay largely the same season to season, they are always open to revision at the discretion of adult leadership, if enough returning team members make a persuasive case for changes.

This living document covers everything you might imagine: dress code for each type of class, attendance policies, behavioral expectations, appropriate social media usage, parent conduct, even health and wellness. “We ask them to take care of their bodies by fueling when they need to, resting when they have an injury, getting enough sleep, et cetera,” Katie says.

This contract can be delivered digitally, such as via Google Forms, or with pen and paper. (Keep in mind that we remember the contents of physical documents better than we do their electronic counterparts.) Katie also recommends keeping hard copies of these agreements in each classroom for reference and reminders if needed. “There’s power in words and in showing teens that we’re preparing them for the real world,” Katie says. “It’s just like the contract or non-compete agreement you’d sign when you get a job.”

Let them lead

Classroom assistant training programs have long been an efficient way to help a studio by providing knowledgeable classroom assistants. But these programs can also provide stabilization, manageable challenges, and confidence growth to students still struggling to find their footing after COVID.

At Expressions, Natalia and owner Darcy Fagerwold collaborate to create opportunities for teens to lead. “Leadership is huge for us,” Darcy says. “We don’t just throw assistants in there. They are getting instruction and support every week through our leadership classes.” By placing adolescents in positions of meaningful responsibility, teachers signal their trust that teens will rise to the occasion—hello, virtuous cycle!

Starting at age 11, Expressions dancers can apply to become teaching assistants under Natalia’s mentorship. Sophomores in high school can apply for a more intensive junior faculty program. As junior faculty, dancers try their hand at leading the class, all under the supervision and mentorship of a seasoned teacher.

“If they’ve come up through the program, by the time they’re seniors in high school they can teach on their own—and they are stellar,” Darcy says. For teenage dancers, teaching their younger counterparts how to meet high expectations can be the best way to learn how to meet high expectations themselves.

“Guide from the side”

That’s Tracey Wozny’s governing phrase when it comes to teenage dancers. The owner/director of Shapes Dance & Acro in rural Missouri, and creator of the Taking Shape STAR Leadership Curriculum, describes this approach as a “listening ear” or “servant-leadership” model.

Per Tracey, the top-down, authoritarian leadership model that boomers or millennials might have grown up with simply doesn’t work with Gen Z. “When you flip that upside down, you’re leading from the bottom,” she adds. “As important as it is for teachers of this generation to reiterate classroom expectations, find balance on the other side too.”

To Tracey, balance means incorporating mindfulness, discussion, and other forms of productive downtime into your teen classes. That’s because meaningful learning is most likely to occur when adolescents are neither hyperaroused (upset; bouncing off the walls) nor hypoaroused (spaced-out; sad).

Try spending two to three minutes at the start of class on what Tracey calls a “temperature check.” Ask dancers to rate their mood and energy levels on a scale of 1 to 10. (You could even have students close their eyes and hold up a finger to “record their temperature,” so responses aren’t overly influenced by peers.)

It’s important that instructors feel empowered to follow up on this data, whether that’s by adapting class plans to include more or less sensory stimulation, or even just checking in after class with a teen who was feeling low. Being aware of teens’ ever-changing emotional states can help teachers nudge energy levels up or down to the “zone of tolerance”—that happy medium where true growth and learning happen.

Wherever it makes sense to do so, incorporating students’ feedback into class planning can have a tremendous effect on their willingness to really listen. “Find the little things that give teens ownership and choice, like letting them pick the music,” Tracey says. Creatively contributing to their own dance experience will increase teens’ motivation to cooperate on the other goals you’re setting for them.

The art of showing up

Katie considers herself lucky to work with many teenagers. In particular, she says, “I’m grateful that we have such a large competitive population and such a large recreational population, because that’s uncommon when you get to the teen years.” She adds that usually the competitive teens need a little bit more guidance and supervision versus recreational dancers who just come for fun.

For the competition team, Katie and her fellow teachers found an accountability solution that brilliantly capitalizes on adolescents’ need to feel valued and accepted by their peers. Individuals’ attendance at class and rehearsals are tracked, in real time, on large charts prominently displayed in the studio building. Katie has found that most teens are less likely to let the team down with spotty participation when attendance records are so clearly visible.

There are no hard-and-fast attendance rules for the recreational track at either studio where Katie teaches. Still, “If any of our students miss two weeks in a row, we give them a courtesy call and ask what’s going on,” Katie says. The excuses you might hear (like “I’m in the school play” or “I have too much schoolwork this month”) will help your studio continue to meet that family’s particular needs and interests. Even more valuable, teenagers learn that teachers do notice—and care—when they’ve missed class or rehearsal.

The art of showing up

Katie considers herself lucky to work with many teenagers. In particular, she says, “I’m grateful that we have such a large competitive population and such a large recreational population, because that’s uncommon when you get to the teen years.” She adds that usually the competitive teens need a little bit more guidance and supervision versus recreational dancers who just come for fun.

For the competition team, Katie and her fellow teachers found an accountability solution that brilliantly capitalizes on adolescents’ need to feel valued and accepted by their peers. Individuals’ attendance at class and rehearsals are tracked, in real time, on large charts prominently displayed in the studio building. Katie has found that most teens are less likely to let the team down with spotty participation when attendance records are so clearly visible.

There are no hard-and-fast attendance rules for the recreational track at either studio where Katie teaches. Still, “If any of our students miss two weeks in a row, we give them a courtesy call and ask what’s going on,” Katie says. The excuses you might hear (like “I’m in the school play” or “I have too much schoolwork this month”) will help your studio continue to meet that family’s particular needs and interests. Even more valuable, teenagers learn that teachers do notice—and care—when they’ve missed class or rehearsal.

Affirm. Validate. Retain.

There’s no denying that it’s challenging to be a teen dancer. Well-defined dress codes collide with increasing body insecurity. Hours of commitment to the studio are pitted against steadily rising academic demands. Adolescents’ drive to discover their authentic selves can even cause some to question how dance fits into their changing identities.

But as any savvy studio owner knows, if dancers feel a true sense of belonging among their dance friends and teachers, they’ll stick it out. Tracey encourages her fellow dance educators to make a frequent practice of validating each teen’s hard work and growth.

Recently, one of Tracey’s teens—who Tracey believes derives important structure from dance training—expressed a desire to stop dancing. Tracey quickly made it her mission to help this dancer see not only how much she had progressed, but also that she’s a cherished member of the studio community. After several heartfelt conversations, the dancer changed her mind about quitting.

“Teens so easily can just give up and slip through the cracks,” Tracey says. “We’ve got to put in the work so they really understand their value.”

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