Helping Your Young Students Through Tragedy

As many of you know, I teach young children in New York City. Throughout the last month things have not been easy. And even though many of my students homes and apartments were not directly affected, their family businesses or extended family homes were affected. Their teachers families and their babysitters were affected by Sandy as well. I don’t think anyone that lives in the immediate area wasn’t affected in some way.

A tattered flag at Rockaway Beach after Superstorm Sandy

Photo courtesy Roman Iakoubtchik

When disaster strikes, things get thrown all off, understandably so. Many of my students were sad, lacking energy and smiles, and some didn’t even feel like dancing. On top of the hurricane, a horrible tragedy happened to one of my students families that affected the same community. Needless to say, I didn’t feel like dancing either.

BUT, as dance teachers we know that most of the time dancing always makes us feel better. Right? Right! For me, even teaching, what I love to do most in the whole wide world, was a challenge.

Here are some helpful tips and ideas I used to get through my feelings and to help my students get through it too.

Disclaimer: I am not a child psychologist. I am writing from my experiences and sharing with you what worked for me. 

Follow Their Lead

Even though I was feeling sad, I knew I had to pull things together and be there for my students. After this all happened many of my students resisted separating from their grownups. So, instead of fighting it, I left the door open for the entire class and eventually they made their way in. It was all about waiting until they were ready.

If they wanted to sit out and watch, or take a break, I let them and eventually they would come back and join the group. If they requested a certain dance or song I made sure to fit it in. I followed their lead for a few weeks, and I think this helped them bounce back. At first I thought maybe they were feeding off of my feelings and energy but after talking to their adults their actions were consistent.

Listen and Respond As Best As You Can

When I talked to colleagues about how they were responding to questions and opening up conversation for their students, they said to “support the feelings they are expressing and only give information they ask for.” We do that anyway in a class, right? I was glad my colleagues offered that advice because I was over thinking it and really I just had to be myself. That’s really what they needed.

One little one said “my Grandma’s house is flooded and I’m really sad.” I responded “I am very sad about what happened to your Grandma’s house but I am so happy she is safe.” After I said that, I got a “Yeah!” and a big smile and we continued dancing. I think they just need reassurance that someone else close to them understands their feelings and may be feeling the same way they are.

Here is a good article about how to open doors to conversation with children. Maybe more for parents then teachers but I still gained a lot of helpful points from reading it.

Place Tragedy On Someone Else

Animals are helpful to use for this concept. Recently, I went to a workshop where they taught us the dance of the crab. The crab ended up in pieces after the hurricane. His claws on one side of the room, his eyes on the other. His mouth on the ceiling and his back on the floor. We had to work together to put the crab back together. We made up movements for the claws, the eyes, the mouth and his back. Then we got to pick which one we wanted to be and we danced all together.

After that, the crab was as good as new! I think I might use this dance with my 3 year olds and up. It is a really good life lesson that even though it will take time and hard work to get things back to normal, we can do it and get through it.

Children’s Books That Help

A Little Book About Feelings
I love using children’s books in my dance room and I felt like it was very therapeutic for me to research the books below. Tragedy is a touchy subject but it may be up to us, as dance teachers, to help guide children’s feelings from their mind to their body and out into the world. Any of these books can be talked about or danced about, and even if you don’t use them in your class, it’s a resource  for you to always come back to if you need it. Unfortunately, you just never know.

The Invisible String A book about how all of our hearts are connected by a string.

I’m Not Going Out There! A book about a little boy who won’t come out from under his bed because of scary creatures. One even does ballet!

Yesterday We Had a Hurricane A book that talks about a hurricane from a child’s perspective.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages A book that discusses the delicate subject of life and death.

A Little Book About Feelings A book that encourages children to express and accept their feelings.

Believe it or not, writing this blog post is part of my personal therapy. My students and I have been doing much better, but everything is still in the back of my mind and I’m sure it remains with them too.

I thank my preschool students for making me laugh and bringing me joy during the last month. They helped me as much as I helped them. If I didn’t have them I don’t know what I would be feeling today. Sometimes I think 3 and 4 year olds are the bravest little people on the planet! Don’t you?

Has tragedy ever struck your community?

How did you cope? How did you help your students get through it? I would love to hear! 

Maria Hanley Blakemore

Maria Hanley Blakemore

Early Childhood Dance Educator at Maria's Movers
A passionate advocate for early childhood dance education, Maria Hanley Blakemore teaches ages 18 months to 6 years, 6 days a week. Maria currently designs and implements ballet programs for the young families and after school division at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, Maria teaches creative movement, creative ballet, and parent/toddler classes at Dancewave Center and The Mark Morris Dance Group. Maria holds a Master’s degree in dance education from New York University (2007) and a Bachelor’s degree in dance performance from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania (2005). She also serves on Dance/NYC’s Junior Committee and is a member of the National Dance Education Organization. Maria is the founder of Maria’s Movers, a program that offers dance, movement and yoga classes to boys and girls in their early years. She authors the blog Move. Create. Educate. (, where she shares her creative ideas about teaching young dancers.
Maria Hanley Blakemore
Maria Hanley Blakemore

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