Ten Tips On How to Engage with Parents in Parent-Child Classes

By Jochelle Pereña


I’ve been teaching dance for a while. My resumé says something like confidently creates developmentally-appropriate dance curricula for ages 0-adult. But I’ve got to say that my confidence was challenged when I started leading parent-child classes as a teaching artist at Luna Dance Institute several years ago. I could happily engage young children with imaginative and creative curriculum, or dive deep into improvisation techniques with adults, but to have both populations in one class stumped me.

I defaulted to focusing solely on the little ones, and awkwardly avoided the grown-ups. I think in my newness to parent-child classes I felt exposed as a teacher, like I was being watched by potential critics. And of course they were watching me! I didn’t give them much else to do, and at best treated them as their kids’ accessories and props to climb on, dance over, or spin around. I knew I needed to engage these parents, but how could I do it without completely interrupting the class ow or without coming off as patronizing? Certainly the strategies I used with children, like whispering “I have a secret to tell you. Shhh. Come close so you can hear it,” or dazzling them with a parachute would not work.

Things got easier when I became a parent myself. I realized that parents too struggle with what it means to be in relationship with their child, and with how they’re supposed to be taking a dance class together. They struggle with just getting to dance class. And although they’ve signed up for a parent-child dance class, they don’t really know what that means—it certainly doesn’t feel like dancing together when your kid keeps running away from you, or refuses to be out of your arms, or wants to watch while you do all the moving, or has a meltdown on the studio floor. I’ve definitely had cringing moments with my daughter when I’ve closed my eyes in exasperation and asked, “What am I doing here again?”

Our job as dance teachers is to create a class culture in which it’s okay for kids to be kids, adults to be adults, and in which we can celebrate all the different ways that this can look as we dance together. By engaging parents we are also supporting them in this dance class culture. So how do we do this? Practice, practice, practice, reflection and evaluation, and practice again. But I do think there are some tips that can help, and that I wish I had known when I first started. Here are my favorite ten, ranging from potentially obvious to more subtle and complex.

TEN TIPS FOR ENGAGING PARENTS and the theoretical reasons behind them:

1. Send a welcome email out to parents, preparing them and their child for class – how early to arrive, what to wear, what to bring/not bring, how late to stay, any expectations and studio rules. While we as dance teachers live in this world all the time, this might be the first time that a parent has stepped into a dance studio. So before you scream in horror as they walk across the dance floor in muddy boots, take a moment to orient them. Also, explain the role of parents and how it might change. I might say something like: “In our parent-child classes adults are dancers too, so come prepared to move. You may be asked to dance with your child, dance with the adults while your child watches, or be an active audience member.” Review these notes in the first few classes—chances are these busy parents may not have fully read the email, or they just need a little reminder.

2. Get to know parents as they arrive or pack up to leave. Set up props like scarves or balls for children (and adults) to play with during these transition times and while the kids are busy, initiate adult conversations with the parents. Often parents long to be seen as people other than their kid’s grown-up, so learn their names and ask them about their lives. This opens the door for parents to ask questions about the class or what their kid is doing/not doing when they come up.

3. Make every transition in class transparent and clearly tell parents what they can do to help. For example: “One more minute to dance with the scarves, show me your last dances! . . .Freeze in your last shape with your scarf in 3, 2, 1. Hold it while I clap for you. Now say goodbye to your scarf as you put it in the box, then make a circle all together for the next thing. Parents can help us make the circle together.”

4. After a few weeks of class, give parents observation homework. Ask them to watch their child during the week and come back to share what they’ve noticed in their child’s movement. They might discover that their waddler is now rolling, or that their toddler wants to play dance class at home. Parents will get to see that their children are learning and practicing something new, and kids will get to hear that they’ve been seen by their parents – very reaffirming.

Photo by Idalia Ramos
Photo by Idalia Ramos

5. Address parents throughout the dance class about what’s going on developmentally for their kids. I’m not going to lie, there is an art to this that requires a lot of practice. You are aiming for a succinct little kernel to interject that will educate a curious parent or calm a nervous one while maintaining the rhythm of the class so that you don’t lose the attention of the little ones. In a class of waddlers (16-24 months), I might say: “Can you gallop? Galloping is one foot chasing the other. Let’s try it. Parents, this is a challenge for new walkers and runners, but children can get a sense of the rhythm while in your arms. Gallop and gallop and gallop and go! [Try it for a bit]. Some kids may just want to run [I might notice some children really excited by running]. I see Sasha running. Let’s all run! Show me a running dance! Can you run and stop? Etc., etc.” Thus the child who is ‘not following directions’ is not doing anything wrong, but is providing ideas for the next dance prompt or another way to try it.

6. Provide opportunities for I, We, Us dancing. The I, We, Us concept was developed during a Luna Dance Institute research project led by Professor and Associate Dean of the Arts at UC Santa Cruz Ted Warburton as we were investigating relationship-based dance in our MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) program. It refers to the individual’s experience (I), the experience of parent and child in relationship (We), and that of the whole class community (Us). Engaging both children and adults in each of these kinds of dances allows them to practice healthy attachment and separation skills, and reminds them that they can be individuals, and together, and part of a group, simultaneously. Under 5s are egocentric in the best way, and they live in individualistic I moments. They will be moving however they please no matter what. Adults, on the other hand, often need permission to separate themselves from their child to indulge in a moment for themselves—it may actually be harder for them to detach from their kid than it is for the child to separate from the parent. No matter how hard they try, adults may still feel like whatever their child is doing is a reflection of their parenting. Give them the sense that you are watching their child, and keeping them safe so that they can let go. (See tip #7 for more specific ideas.) We moments allow parents to engage with their kids, and, when complementing I moments, allow children to begin to understand that this is Me dancing, that is You dancing, and now we are dancing Together. I weave these into the curriculum with prompts like these: “Make a family shape with one dancer high and one dancer low. Now switch.” “Kids dance far away from your grown-up. Wave to them from far away. Wave with your foot, elbow, etc. Now dance towards each other and give each other a high five. High five with your foot, elbow, etc.” “Try an over-under dance. Parents make tunnels for your kids to dance through, then kids make tunnels for your parents.” Gathering families in a circle for a hello/goodbye song, or to hold hands in a dance, or to play with the parachute supports community-building through Us dancing, as all movers have a chance to see each other’s faces. Parenting can be a lonely and demanding job, and adults often seek out activities like a dance class so that they can meet, connect and commiserate with other parents. They long for community, and these subtle Us moments reminds them that we’re all in this together.

7. Create a safe space for parents to practice joyful play and movement. Remember that these may be new parents—they’ve only been parents as long as their kids are old, perhaps just a few months. Or maybe they are experienced parents with multiple children and are completely knackered. Either way they may not remember, or may need practice playing and experimenting with what their body can do, and dancing with abandon could feel foreign and intimidating. When I set up a movement playtime, I often bring out a prop—hula hoops, squishy balls, ribbons, scarves—and ask, “What can you do with this? Play and find out. Adults can play, too.” I turn the music on as a buffer so it feels more fun, and less like I’m watching what’s going on, and I play too. I have no expectations about this playtime, there are no strings attached. The dance parties I insert at various points during class I treat the same way. “Let’s have a one minute dance party together! Dance anyway you like with your family or on your own while the music is playing.” Adults can tap into their I moments and develop a kind of empathy to what’s happening with their children.

8. Offer lots of different ways for parents to observe and respond to their child’s dancing. Dancing in relationship (We), as mentioned above, is one way. Other ways include parents dancing as their kid’s shadow, following each movement of the child as leader; playing a game so that every time a child kicks or turns the parent must jump or fall; letting kids dance on their own, then having their parents copy one part of their dance; kids perform for their parents and then asking them what they saw them do. Parents respond with as much detail and dance language as they can.

9. As a teacher, model the myriad of roles of the parent as playmate, observer/sportscaster, celebrator, prompter. As I am dancing with families, I am also watching and sportscasting what I see: “I see Helen rolling far away from her dad. Ricardo is rolling in his mama’s arms. Jason and Keisha are rolling side by side.” The message is I see you, I see the new thing that you’re working on – and you can celebrate this by sharing your amazement. “Wow! You are jumping and shaking at the same time! Let’s all try that. Can you jump and shake?” Then offer a new prompt: “Parents, can you see just how big your kids are making their bodies? Kids can you make your body even bigger? Even bigger? Even BIGGER? Wow! I see your huge shape! You are gigantic!” In modeling this, you are offering parents tools for interacting with their children beyond the dance class to activities at home. Parents don’t always have to be the entertainers, and in fact they shouldn’t be. Kids are already doing so much developmentally without adult direction or involvement, it’s just difficult to see it until we can step back and watch. Adults can support what is already happening with children by noticing and celebrating it, then, without putting too much pressure on it, posing a new challenge.

10. Remember that the biggest gift you can give parents is to help them see their child in a new way. After a rough hour/day/month with my daughter, I can feel weary. In these moments when I look at her I may only see a whiny and de ant, sticky hot mess, and my own shortcomings as a parent. Being able to watch her in dance class, where someone else is guiding the experience and noticing her taking risks and trying new things, shifts my perspective. “Oh, she’s traveling backwards? She’s never done that before.” I can view her as another person figuring out how to use her body and express herself, and I feel joyful in witnessing her discoveries.

I am still learning. Practicing, practicing, reflecting and evaluating and practicing again. This month I’ll be working with our Professional Learning team to articulate our progression of Early Childhood Dance at Luna Dance Institute, in part so that all faculty can continue to hone our skills. We’ll be teasing out the role of the parent and caregiver as we prepare for our 2017 Family Dance Teaching Institute. Stay tuned.

Jochelle is a teaching artist and manager for Luna's Professional Learning program. She hails from Vashon Island, Washington where she grew up watching the choreography of birds in flight and forests in windstorms. She has trained in the studios of Seattle, the farmlands of the Lost Coast, the nightclubs of West Africa, and more formally at Laban, London (Professional Diploma in Dance Studies, 2005), and at Mills College, Oakland (MFA in Choreography and Performance, 2011). A choreographer, dancer and educator, she has performed and presented works internationally and has taught dance, drama and performing arts education to children and adults at Cornish College of the Arts, Mills College, Laban, Artis, and West County Community High School. In 2015 Jochelle was named Dance Teacher of the Year in the K-12 sector by Dance Teacher Magazine. She co-directs the dance theatre collective, The Thick Rich Ones. Currently, she is a student in early childhood development, led in daily discoveries by her toddler daughter and infant son. jperena@lunadanceinstitute.org