Kindness in the Classroom: Moving, Discussing, and Being Our Best

Students of the Kansas City Ballet School

Kansas City Ballet – Upper School. Photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.
Copyright Kansas City Ballet

As you know, I am all about critical and creative thinking in the classroom. This fall I am ready for some new practices. This is my list of potentials as I start the new school year, along with some tips I swear by.

Setting Up for Success

This summer I started offering some workshops on empathy-based pedagogy and emotionally intelligent teaching. In other words, I am helping educators identify messages they are sending not only in what they say, but in how they structure their classes and organize the people and movement within them.

Tip #1: Start moving before settling into lines. Begin class with a “free walk”- stylize it, add rhythm, add step patterns, with music or without- it hardly matters. What matters is getting the students and the energy moving, passing, shifting. Give a quick four counts to start warm-up.


Of course we need to organize our students in a way that we can see them and manage traffic. If we allow our students to set themselves day after day, there are subtle but powerful signals that will impact the community and the culture of your room.

Spatial organization tends to turn into a power struggle with certain students claiming areas of space, leaving others “pushed” to parts of the room they may not be happy with. Usually this is determined by social structures but sometimes it is about a sensed hierarchy of who feels they deserve to be in the front.

Everyone deserves to be in the front

Which brings me to….

Tip #2: Keep moving, shifting, passing- as in YOU.

If we always treat the front of the room as the front of the room, habits settle in. Apart from “the front line”, there tends to be mirrors in the front and they aren’t always the helpful tool we want them to be.

Consider the benefits of students sensing movement and initiating movement from an internal place rather than relying on the external image to inform their dancing.

Consider the power of turning the tables of the social hierarchy as everyone gets to be seen and commended for their work.

Mill around the room as you are talking dancers through patterns and provide personal feedback. Give sweep of positive observations, “I am noticing your scapulas are engaged nicely.” “I am noticing you are more aware of your instep.” “I am noticing you have placed more energy in your arms.”

When you are at the head of the class again, ask students to contribute things they learned as they were dancing. If no one immediately volunteers to speak, safely call on dancers that you spoke to while dancing to offer your observations.

“Jane, what did I observe in your dancing?” (she answers) then follow up with “Did you feel that before I mentioned it? I wonder where you’ll direct your attention next time, any thoughts?”

Not only will students have something to say that may spark others to think and speak too, they are voicing positive things about their own work that have been validated by you. They are the ones saying it out loud. And soon they will be able to find more improvements in their work without your help. How empowering!

Keep ‘em talking, reflecting

Tip #3: Pass the Yarn.

To break the awkward silence when starting a class discussion, use a ball of yarn to spin the information web and visually represent the value of communication and contribution.

Sit in a circle. Invite students to ask questions about a movement experience, about something they have seen or about the field of dance. Offer the skein of yarn to a student, or model this yourself. Hold the loose end and when the response has been concluded, roll the yarn to someone across the circle. This continues until everyone has communicated.


In the old application, I have used this in potentially heated dialogues in which several people may want to talk over each other. Only the person who holds the ball is permitted to speak.

In the new, I think I will do this in the first couple days to build community with a conversation about perspectives in dance and if that goes well, I may use this semi-regularly to support the effort of making sure everyone in our community is contributing.

Inviting questions offers an opportunity to hear students think while taking the pressure off of having an answer. Soon, you will be able to pose the thought-provoking probes and they will take on the answers.

The result is a web of communication that continually brings the group back to how they are connected as well as the responsibility of being a contributing member. It is harder to be mean to someone if they are seeing you, as in a class circle, than it is when you can turn your back.

As an educator, you are able to see more of the social dynamics when you are in the circle with them and are willing to be seen as well.

Practicing success

In the end, through these steps, we will have practiced kindness from within ourselves, one on one, and as a whole – we have shared empathy.

But don’t forget about yourself!

Treating each class as an experiment helps me stay connected and helps me stay engaged. Treating my teaching as a practice and a process has allowed me to more authentically share myself and my journey of learning while teaching with my students.

In demonstrating to them that I am operating from a place of trial, error, and reflection we all feel less pressure to “perform” in the negative sense and instead “process at my best”. Isn’t that what it is all about?

How do you practice kindness in the classroom?

Heather Vaughan-Southard
Heather Vaughan-Southward specializes in connection and community building. She offers project-based learning in K-12 and healthcare contexts, pedagogy consultation, and creative-self-care experiences. Heather formerly directed dance programs in Higher Education and K-12 settings and danced professionally in Chicago, NYC, Los Angeles, and through-out Michigan. She represents Dance for the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment project (MAEIA), serves as a columnist for Dance Advantage, authors the blog EducatingDancers, and was invited to the Editorial Board of the Journal of Dance Education. She is a national conference presenter in the fields of dance and movement pedagogy and is completing a comprehensive pilates certification through the McEntire School. Heather currently serves as Director of Health and Education Services for Happendance, Inc., a non-profit dance organization based in Michigan. Heather is married to author Scott D. Southard and has two children who seem to be in perpetual motion.
Heather Vaughan-Southard


  1. KaLinda LeJune says:

    This is great! Thank you!

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