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The Future is Bright: Leading Gen Z

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They are the students you teach and the young people you employ, born from the mid-90s to around 2010. They are the tech-savvy digital natives who like their privacy, yet aren’t afraid to take a stand for what they believe. They are the teenagers and young adults who are creative and gifted, but also walk through life with caution, having grown up in a post-9/11 world of tragedies, corporate scandals, and an economic recession.

They are Generation Z

And they need us to help them discover their strengths and support their needs so they can shine to their fullest potential.

In this conversation, Tracey Wozny and I share our insights about working with Gen Z and leading them to reach that potential. As the author of the Taking Shape STAR Leadership curriculum, Tracey influences thousands of teachers and students around the world, teaching the character values of trust, service, love, excellence, and growth. In my own studio, I teach an informal, custom-designed class we call Success for Teens, leaning heavily into life skills, self-discovery exercises, and coping techniques for anxiety. Tracey and I are both Certified Next Generation Facilitators with GrowingLeaders.com. We have a deep passion for working with Gen Z, and we’re ready to help more studio owners and teachers see the bright future that is possible for our teens.

Julie Lucia:

OK, Tracey, let’s hit the ground running! I know that for a lot of studio owners, working with teens can be perplexing at best … our kids are a bundle contradictions, full of angst but also ambition; worried about the world but also wanting to change it for the better. It can become easy to get exasperated with them when all we want is to train them to be their best selves. The dance studio has really become an extension of their whole-life education, so it seems to be crucial that we address their overall growth and well-being. What are some steps studio owners can take to better understand what their kids need and guide them in the right direction?

Tracey Wozny:

I agree that many studio owners and teachers find it challenging to lead Generation Z due to the specific differences you mentioned above, Julie, and also specifically on the other side of this pandemic. These are a few things I can suggest:

First, observe and take note of what is different about your students now. Observe how they communicate, how they handle stress, how they react to positive and negative situations. Find the commonalities and the differences.

Give them a safe place to verbalize and talk about what they are feeling. Building relationships and expressing feelings verbally are not strengths of Generation Z. But it has been my experience that once you start the conversation, the floodgates open and they are willing to share how they feel. Because they are digital, social, and mobile beings, they are not used to verbalizing their feelings through conversation. They need practice.

Be prepared to listen—don’t try to fix them! Our tendency is to try to fix problems or give advice. Just give them an outlet to talk and be heard.   

Track what is working. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each day or class is different and you as the educator can guide them more successfully when you see the pattern that works the best.

Something I’ve noticed, and that other leaders are probably noticing too, is that our teens right now tend to express high levels of stress. In this generation they are more anxious and sometimes depressed—and now they’ve been through a pandemic. Julie, I know you’ve researched this topic a bit, so what are the signs that studio owners should be watching for in their students? How should we approach stressed and anxious teens?

Julie Lucia:

You make a good point, Tracey. Our Gen Z kids need to be encouraged to express their feelings, and when they do, it’s clear that some of them are dealing with a lot of pressure and worry. Statistically-speaking, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that more than a third of girls will experience an anxiety disorder in adolescence.

I think it’s important to note that it’s healthy for teens to go through bouts of stress, and those periods of time teach them a lot about how resilient they can be; how they can grow as a result of life’s challenges. But when kids are stressed beyond these periods, they may or may not be able to articulate “anxiety” as the root of the problem. You may notice that they have a difficult time concentrating or seem extra irritable. Maybe they pretend to be injured or sick to get out of class or even talk about quitting dance altogether.

Normalizing conversations around anxiety is a good place to start to help them. Like you mentioned already, just opening up discussions and listening to your students can be helpful. This validates their feelings as real, acceptable, human emotions. 

You can also remind them of specific times when they have persevered through worry or disappointment (think audition results, casting decisions, level placement). And perhaps most of all, let them know that it’s OK to be uncomfortable. Part of coping with anxiety is riding it out like a surfer rides a wave. Kids can have anxious feelings and still be great, productive students and a good friend to others.

I’ve learned from research in psychology that there is such a thing as “post-traumatic growth” or PTG, which is when people who come through a traumatic event experience greater strength and new perspectives. Tracey, how can we help our Gen Z students see the PTG in this post-pandemic life?

Girls taking selfie

Tracey Wozny:

I have used a couple of tools in conversation with our Gen Z students regarding PTG. Many times our teens are programmed to focus on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) so we talk about flipping PTSD upside down and focusing on PTG! 

The first tool is the “three bucket” approach, which is a Habitude lesson from Gen Z expert, Dr. Tim Elmore. It’s a thought process to show our teens how to categorize everything that happens to them into three buckets. This is how I explain it to them:

Bucket 1

This one holds what you can control. You can control your reactions, your words, and your actions.

Bucket 2

This one holds what you can’t control. You can’t control the pandemic, the weather, or school regulations.

Bucket 3

This one holds what you can influence. This is the most important bucket! It is where you realize that positive influence will be the ripple effect of how a situation is handled. It shows the importance of strong role models
and leaders.

Along with group discussions like this, I’ve found that journaling has been a game changer for our students because they can write out their feelings. For a situation they see as negative, my students write about any potential pluses or feelings of gratitude. Through that they realize there is more good than they initially saw. We talk about how they can grow from the experience.

As we take what we have learned about Gen Z through this pandemic and incorporate it in our studios, what are some changes you are making (or you suggest other studio owners make) concerning schedules, class times, etc.?

Julie Lucia:

I have to say, I think a lot of us have realized that one of the silver linings about going through the pandemic is the opportunity to reset some of the “we’ve always done it this way” practices in the studio. We have the choice now to create a better normal, not just return to what was. That’s huge!

When it comes to creating that better normal for our teens, the best advice I have is to make time for conversations with them, because making the time means those connections about life and leadership can take place alongside technique and choreography. 

Maybe this looks like a monthly session with your company kids, an extension of rehearsal time, or a weekly class for dancers who meet an age or level requirement. You might charge a fee or include it in tuition. Plan the sessions around a general topic or lesson but also be willing to read the room and improvise. If you’re not sure where to start, make a list of your studio values and think about what it takes to instill them in your students, beyond the dance steps. 

For example, I’ve taught lessons around topics like overcoming limiting beliefs, the impact of social media, reframing stress, and kindness toward others. You could also consider using a curriculum like Tracey’s to simplify lesson planning and have a robust program right at your fingertips, with workbooks and discussion materials ready-to-go!

I know we could both talk about Gen Z all day long, but Tracey, as we wrap this up, do you have any final words of encouragement for our readers?

Tracey Wozny:

Yes! Studio owners and teachers, if you are leading Gen Z, take the time to learn their language and understand them. Generational differences are not new; each preceding generation learns the traits of the new generations that follow. However, the generational traits of Gen Z will certainly be amplified by what they have experienced during this pandemic. 

I believe it is our privilege as leaders to walk alongside Gen Z and accelerate their strengths. Use your values and openness to learn from them and show them what’s possible. Together we can create a better world on the other side of this pandemic.

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