Tips for Special-Needs Teachers | Encouraging Self-Help

Photo by Arthur Crenshaw

by Tricia Gomez

This month we’re focusing on the self-help developmental domain, which requires skills from the motor and cognitive domains. Activities of daily living (ADLs), such as feeding, dressing, self-care, and self-regulation, are often taken for granted, but this is an area where many students with learning differences and special needs struggle. Let’s take a look at helpful dance-class strategies to support students’ growth in this domain.

Lay it all out! The ability to self-regulate emotions and attend to tasks can be derailed by anxiety that stems from fear of the unknown. When anxiety takes over, we see maladaptive behaviors such as hitting or crying. Knowing what’s coming up calms anxiety and supports self-regulation.

A simple way to help students know what to expect is to create a visual schedule. Think about the different segments of your class: rhythm lessons, warm-up, choreography, dance game, reward stickers, and so on. While the activities in each segment may change from week to week, the order of segments generally remains the same. Now divide a poster board with a vertical line down the middle: label the left side “Time For” and the right side “Done.” Make laminated cards for your class segments, and attach them with Velcro in order on the “Time For” side. Once a segment is complete, have a student move that card to the “Done” side.

Turn life into dance! Learning new skills requires creating and strengthening neuropathways in the brain. The best way to do this is through repetition, repetition, repetition. Dance provides the perfect opportunity to create movement for your students that closely resembles motor patterns required for ADLs. So get creative in class. How can you, the teacher, transform putting on your pants, lifting a glass to your mouth, or combing your hair into fun and functional dance movements? When your students are ready, ask them for ideas as well.


Creator of Hip Hop in a Box, Tricia Gomez is the global director of Rhythm Works Integrative Dance, which certifies teachers to work with special-needs students.