Managing the Middle School “Shut Down”


Photo Courtesy of Robinlou8

Even when you have the best of relationships with your students, there are days or weeks that some middle-schoolers will grunt, shrug, or ignore every attempt you make to welcome them at the door, engage them in class, or crack your latest joke.

They are middle-schoolers; it is kind of their job.

I have begun turning the tables on how we engage in our classwork. Instead of “teaching” my lesson during which I lead them through movement, impart valuable information, and allow them time to experiment with it — I have started providing a framework for which the exploration leads the lesson and everyone in the room is responsible for exploring, including me.

I have found that the their work is improved, authentic, and owned. And they see me in a different light, too. I am still guiding their experience but I am also an active part of the process, similar to how Maria Hanley Blakemore models exploration with her students instead of for them.

Throughout the process, we have been able to avoid many of the pitfalls of middle school “shut downs”, those that are emotional and those that are academic. There has been something for everyone as we have had a myriad of experiences so different leaders have surfaced for different activities.

A few things have helped:
  • Visuals:
    A giant yellow sheet of paper covers much of one wall of mirrors, documenting our thoughts and our process.
  • Dancers’ Choice:
    The kids were surprised when I let them create their groups. Again and again, I was asked how many had to be in a group. I took a page from their books and shrugged, offering “all I ask is that you choose to be productive so make your decisions accordingly.” For the most part, they have.
  • 2 Cents:
    The students helped plan each step of our process including how much time we spent on each part.
  • Music Upon Need, Not Demand:
    We only used music when we felt we needed a boost in motivation and therefore it did not drive what we were creating.
  • Neutral in Style, Objective in Goals:
    Without classifying movement by style, we were able to invent movement that suited our needs and fit our criteria for limitations. The process then felt like problem-solving instead of choreographing and it took the pressure off of students intimidated by “choreography” assignments.
  • Escape Routes: 
    As our experiences were enriched, our ideas and questions diversified. So the “dead air” or “dead end” that can occur when students shut down has been minimized… there is always something new to talk about.
There have been a few other changes that have made a big difference.

As I work through my classes that push me toward the renewal of my teaching certificate, I have been making constant adjustments to the climate within my room, as discussed in my article Acknowledging the Person Before the Dancer, and refining my focus in the objectives and outcomes I create for my students. (Check out this article on four teaching styles by Stacey Pepper Schwartz)

I have also been paying closer attention to how I speak to kids. Always an advocate for children, I have been sensitive to how I use my tone and how I make requests and it has been critical in my success as a teacher. Yet middle-schoolers can be a whole separate ball game from their younger and older counterparts.

Jim Fay and David Funk’s  Teaching With Love and Logic has been a particularly powerful resource for me- so much so that I have purchased the Parenting With Love and Logic, too!

How do you deal with the middle school “shut down”?
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. What a resource-rich article. Thank you! I love the idea of “neutral in style, objective in goals.” I find that middle schoolers in particular can have such intensely defined ideas of style and how dances that to create tasks and almost a project-oriented approach to dance and dance-making can help create safe and more creative environments. I also find that the more opportunities the kids have to teach each other (not just share with each other), the more I am impressed with their ownership of material. I look forward to spending a lot of time with this article and all the links you’ve collected in it. Again, thank you!

    • Thanks, Ashley for your response! I am happy you are finding the article useful and worth re-visiting. Like you, I think giving students the opportunity to teach each other is powerful. As Jim Fay and David Funk would say, the more control we give, the more we receive. Thanks for reading and taking the time to reply! Hope to hear from you again.

  2. I can so feel you – Middle School definitely is a difficult age. I love that you pointed out how strict Middle Schoolers can be when it comes to styles! It is something I have experienced for a while but have never quite named so. I think it is because these kids are finding themselves and as that is a difficult age to do at that age they label themselves and everything around them. But I love the aspect of dancing without styles, definitely gonna add that to my classes next semester. Just one question: How do you call those classes? I have made the experience that mostly it is the parents who want to have to class labelled as “Jazz” or “Modern” or something.

    There are two more problems I have with my Middle Schoolers right now: First, I have a Jazz-class and as they are beginners I like to do lots of isolations to introduce them to the style. I have made the experienced though that especially young girls become extremely body-aware in this time and are afraid when it comes to ribcage/hip-isolation. I am going to give it a try next semester by labelling these body parts as “ribcage” etc. instead of what they might be thinking of. Still, would you enforce insolations or due to the age start with a different part of jazz technique?

    Also, I feel like Middle Schoolers tend to leave their creative dance – comfortable zone really fast. The younger ones often are delighted when they get to be creative, but after about half a year in Middle School they usually want to be like the “teens”. To them, this means learning longer and “cooler” combos in class, but it does certainly not mean to them no longer playing freeze dance at the end of the lesson and doing a lot of technique exercices like my teens do. I have made the experience that they really want to move on but feel like I am the one holding them back as I want to rely on technique etc. Do you have any advice for me?