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Level Up Your Level Placement

level up

How to implement a level placement system that emphasizes a growth mindset—and gets the job done

If the words “level placement” conjure images in your mind of anxious students and questioning parents, you’re not alone.

To get the most out of their dance training, students must be placed in a technique level that is appropriate for their skills and development. Yet the act of doing so can be fraught, especially when it means separating students from others their age, or holding a student in a level for an additional year.

When done without proper care, level placement can seem overly hierarchical, preferential, or ambiguous. It can also feel at odds with the growth mindset most studio owners intend to foster, as well as parents’ expectations of simplicity. But this need not be the case. A thoughtful level placement system, communicated consistently and effectively, can both place students in the correct classes and send the message that their hard work and progress is what’s most important.

Read on for ideas on how to revamp your level placement system to make it clearer and more growth-oriented, with tips from four studio owners.

Make it simple and automatic

Dance It Up with Music owner Jennifer Chin-Gorner used to have countless conversations with parents about level placements. Today she has almost none, thanks to the system she’s developed in recent years.

“We use school grades, because parents understand that you’re not going to go from first grade to fifth grade—there are building blocks that you have to do,” she says. With very few exceptions, students in Jennifer’s recreational program are placed in a level based on their grade in school: All second and third graders are automatically in the petite level, for instance, and all fourth and fifth graders in the tween level. (Jennifer used to place students in her Hamilton, New Jersey, studio by age, but eventually found that using grades avoided nitpicking around when the birthday cutoff date for each year would be.) 

Though a system based on students’ school grades rather than their skill level likely won’t work for every studio, Jennifer has found that it has both cut down on parent complaints and created a culture of growth mindset. “Every parent knows that their kid goes to school to learn,” she says. “And just because they made honor roll in sixth grade doesn’t mean they’ve graduated.”

Learning and leading

Jennifer’s students spend two years in each level—a “learning” year and a “leading” year. She’s worked hard to ensure that both parents and students understand this system: She sends out an annual brochure explaining level progression and the thinking behind it—circling the level on the brochure that corresponds to that student—and uses role-playing scenarios when coaching staff on how to talk about it. 

Her efforts have been successful: Students and parents now use the language of “leading” and “learning” themselves. “You’ll hear the parents use it when we put out the schedule,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘You’re in fourth grade, your friend is in fifth grade, so you have one more year and then next year you’ll bridge and dance with your friend.” 

Jennifer pairs the concept of learning and leading with that of push-pull teaching. “When they’re in their learning year, we’re pushing them, we’re encouraging them, we’re challenging them,” she says. “We’re saying, ‘It’s hard right now, but we know you can do it.’ And the second year, we’re pulling out of them. The language changes so the teachers will say, ‘Okay, you just did that. What do you think you have to work on? Where do you think you can polish this step a little more?’ It becomes more reflective. We’re actually teaching the kids how to have this growth mindset.”

Emily Weber, of Your Performing Arts Center in Yorkville, Illinois, uses a similar two-year “learning and leading” system, though hers is based on skill level rather than grade. “We see a lot of confidence and progress just from having the expectation that you will be in a level for at least two years,” she says. 

Emily says this model also prepares students for the rollercoaster of life. “You’re going to have those dips and upswings; the grind and the growing,” she says. “There are going to be years where you have to grind it out before you grow. And after you grow, guess what? You’re going back to the grind.”

Approach skill acquisition with care

Emily holds two annual evaluations that determine level placement where students are assessed on specific skills on a numerical rubric. The numbers 1 and 2 correspond to a skill that is emerging, 3 and 4 to a developing skill, and 5 to a skill that has been mastered. She makes it clear that the 1 to 5 scale is not the equivalent of bad to good. “A one is not bad! It means they’re just learning it,” Emily says. 

At Excel Dance Centre in Kalamazoo, Michigan, students check off goal sheets throughout the year as they master new skills. Students are expected to complete the sheets before moving to the next level. This visual manifestation of growth “encourages them to want to work harder,” owner Katie Stull says, and helps them see the effort behind their achievements.

Annie Hackett has broken down the seven levels of ballet at her Wisconsin-based Kenosha Academy of Performing Arts into sets of skills, which are tracked and updated in real time via Hackett’s studio software. Most students meet these clearly delineated goals, and parents, who can access their account portal to see how much their children are learning, aren’t blindsided by level placement decisions. 

Climbing to the peak

When talented students progress too quickly, they can often feel as if they’ve peaked and have nothing left to learn—which shortchanges them both as dancers and lifelong learners.

Jennifer avoids this pitfall by sticking to her grade-based system, even with exceptional dancers. “We just call them ‘leaders’ because we don’t want them to age out,” she says, adding that she encourages teachers to challenge talented students with opportunities like having a more difficult role in a recital dance. “We don’t want the excitement to fizzle because they’ve peaked too early. It keeps their perspective on their education in a growth trajectory.” 

Jennifer’s “learning and leading” model also helps to instill a mindset of continual growth. “We wanted to show them that you can repeat something and still not have learned everything there is to learn,” she says. “The true master is never done learning.”

When Emily has students who are ahead of their class, she offers private coaching or the opportunity to take lower-level classes in addition to their regular schedule. “We’re very big on saying that even professionals take beginner-level classes,” she says. 

Katie promotes what she calls a “slow-cooker mentality” over a “microwave mentality”; the idea being that “it’s not just about getting to the top right away.” She places a heavy emphasis on social and emotional growth in her evaluations and level placement decisions, and reminds students that she values their work ethic more than perfection.

“The minute you feel like you’ve made it to the top of the mountain, you’ve stopped living,” says Jennifer. “I want them to stand at the top, look around, and celebrate. But then I want them to turn around and look up at the next mountain and just keep trekking.”

Communicate clearly

To reap the benefits of a smart level placement strategy, you need buy-in from studio parents—and therefore a communication plan that’s just as savvy.

For Annie, helping parents understand how level placement works is built in every step of the way, starting with onboarding emails for new families that lay out what their child’s studio journey will look like, both short-term and long-term. Annual parent-teacher-student conferences are another important step, both in setting goals for students and creating a transparent relationship with parents.

But perhaps the most powerful demonstration of the success of Annie’s level placement system is her annual recital. “Having all the levels [represented] in one show—the parents of the youngest kids can see the oldest kids, and the oldest ones are reminded of when their kids were little,” she says. “It shows their progress.” 

What is Growth Mindset?

The concept of growth mindset was conceived and developed by psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, and since has been popularized in the worlds of education, business, and beyond. Put simply, Dweck suggests that individuals with a growth mindset believe that their skills and talents can be developed through hard work and learning. Others have a fixed mindset and believe that talent is innate. Dweck’s findings suggest that people who have a growth mindset tend to achieve more success than those with a fixed mindset. Studio owners and teachers can promote a growth mindset by encouraging students to learn from their mistakes, and by showing them how hard work can result in the achievement of personal goals, stronger competition results, or more confidence-filled recital dances.

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