We hear a lot these days about kids being ‘entitled.’ It could be students complaining, demanding, threatening to leave, or just general negative drama. There’s many ways teachers can lay foundations for positive motivation, which will in turn, encourage positive behavior. But there’s something important behind these ‘entitled’ behaviors, and once you’re aware of it, you can solve problematic behavior in a whole new way.
Whenever I hear things like “dancers are so entitled these days,” or “my mind is blown by kids’ sense of entitlement,” my spidey senses go off. Firstly, I feel empathy. Life as a dance teacher and studio owner continues to be difficult and unpredictable. Curve balls continue to be thrown at us, and we’re all doing the best we can to roll with the punches, keep our businesses afloat, and still keep dancing and teaching. So when I hear teachers comment on entitlement, I also hear their frustration, and I understand it. Secondly, when I hear comments about entitlement, all my years of child development training kick in, and I have the urge to jump in and say, “entitlement isn’t what you think.”
Entitlement is defined as, “the fact of having a right to something.” In dance education, we usually use it to describe students or parents that are demanding or righteous; whether that be in the roles they believe they deserve, where they’re placed in choreography formation, or the classes they want to be put in. And while it’s true that some kids (and adults) have bold personalities and bad habits of thinking they should have the best of everything all the time, without necessarily working for it, I believe there’s a much more common reason (especially in our current pandemic world reality) kids are displaying ‘entitled’ behaviors.
They’re lonely. They’re also feeling lost, uncertain, and are craving connection and meaning.
As a dance educator with over 15 years of experience, and as someone who has extensive training in child development and psychology, I wholeheartedly believe the tenant that every behavior serves a purpose, and that purpose serves to meet an unmet need. I’ve taught three-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds, and thirty-year-olds, and have always found this to be true. I bet if you think back to some of the behaviors you’ve experienced in your dance classes, you’ll find this to be true as well.
The six-year-old in your class who’s complaining class is boring isn’t being entitled and trying to derail your carefully thought out lesson plan; she’s craving a challenge. Your seventeen-year-old advanced dancer who has been giving you side-eye since he found out he didn’t get the lead role in your performance isn’t being entitled; he’s disappointed his efforts and hard work haven’t gotten him the result he hoped for. And the parent who sat in your office for 30 minutes demanding an explanation why her daughter didn’t get moved up a class level isn’t being entitled, she feels out of the loop and is confused by what she expected to be a done deal.
Can you see how in all these situations the behavior (while not ideal), doesn’t really have anything to do with feeling owed something, it has to do with feeling disconnected?
When kids have a hard time listening, or display behaviors of entitlement, like being demanding, or complaining about class schedules, or the roles they are (or aren’t) given, what they’re really communicating is feeling insecure, unsure, disconnected, and isolated. Here are a few more examples.
When a dancer demands a class schedule change, that’s not really what she’s demanding. She’s asking to be included. When a student complains that they weren’t given the role they deserved, that’s not really what he’s complaining about. He’s saying he feels insecure.
Most kids aren’t even aware of these feelings, let alone communicating them. Heck – most adults aren’t aware of these feelings or communicating them! That’s where our teacher intuition should kick in to tap us on the shoulder, and clue us in to realizing that while the complaining and demanding irritates and frustrates us, there’s more to it than just that.
If any of these examples hit home for you, and you thought to yourself, “Omg, that’s totally my student!”, then you should also know there are some simple solutions. Behavior problems such as these aren’t actually problems at all. They’re invitations to slow down, get curious, and find ways to connect with our dancers.
Here’s 4 steps you can follow to solve entitled behavior in your dance students.
- Take a deep breath. Consider the bigger picture and realize your students (or their parents) most likely aren’t out to get you, and that the entitled behavior is simply a symptom of a different issue.
- Get curious. Approach the behavior problem or situation you find yourself in with curiosity rather than judgment. You might ask yourself, “what is this student’s behavior really trying to tell me?”
- Witness and connect. Often, simply witnessing what our student is feeling or experiencing can take a huge load of pressure off both them, and us. You could tell your student, “I see you’re upset about this”, or “Something about this doesn’t feel right to you, I get that.” Witnessing what’s going on with your dancer then lets us more easily connect with them; guards and walls come down and we can get to the root of what the problem might really be.
- Follow that up with some play! Lighten the mood with a game, or silly joke, or lighthearted reflection. Play is a great tool that lets us connect even more deeply with our students, building trust and bonds that will improve our relationships for years to come.
Another key element to keep in mind when practicing these steps is to consider the kind of language that dancers typically hear around the studio.
Positive language practices can make all the difference in connecting with, and empathizing with our students. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that kids will almost always tell you what they want and need either by their behavior or by request. Instead of resisting, or pushing back, find a way to build their requests into your class! Perhaps you have a group that is really chatty and loves socializing. Instead of drilling down on your no talking rule, consider giving them 5 minutes to get it all out before class starts, or letting them lead small group choreography projects. At first you might worry this will take too much time away from your classes or technique, but if your dancers are enjoying it more and are more engaged in class, isn’t that a win?
Here’s another example: If you’ve got a class of dancers who are complaining at every turn, bringing morale down with rude comments, and rolling their eyes non-stop, but they light up when you do yoga together, or always request games – there’s your answer. Build more dance games into your classes, or take an asana after completing 2 barre exercises! If more frequent games keep the complaints at bay and help dancers to focus better, isn’t that also a win?
Adaptability and flexibility are so important as a dancer, and these are skills you’ll be modeling for your students when you start to see their behavior as indicators of what they’re missing and what they need, rather than as annoyances, or entitlement that you have to put your foot down on. And, if you’ve already started the work to create a positive studio culture, you’re already well on your way to establishing strong foundations like trust and positive communication, which will reinforce positive student behavior.
Does this change your perspective on entitlement and bad student behavior? Which of the four solutions in this post will you try first? Most of all, remember to give yourself a little grace. The world is still a challenging place right now; each of us will be able to show up in different ways on different days. Knowing that, and pairing that empathy with these practices will give you fresh energy and renewed purpose. Keep showing up dance teacher! You can do this!
Katrena Cohea is the CEO of Different Drummer Dance, a dance studio and online education platform on a mission to bring much needed mental, emotional, and physical wellness to dancers and dance teachers.
Katrena grew up in California, studying the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus and later completed the RAD’s Certificate in Ballet Teaching Studies. She danced with the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and professionally with the flamenco group, Brisas de Espana. Katrena graduated from Cal State University East Bay, with a degree in dance and has been teaching in public and private schools for over 15 years.
As the CEO of Different Drummer Dance, she hosts in person and online dancer wellness courses, memberships, and workshops on topics such as body kindness, mindset, mental training skills and emotional wellness. She’s spoken internationally to audiences about the importance of creating and implementing wellness resources for a new generation of students and educators.
She currently lives in upstate New York with her husband, where she enjoys hiking the Adirondacks and re-creating every possible bake from the Great British Baking Show.