Young Children: Addressing Brain, Body and Psychological Functioning through Dance
Working as a dance/movement therapist in an elementary school setting is a rewarding and vibrant experience. In New York City elementary schools, I advocate for dance/movement therapy (DMT) in early education settings. Young children have the unique capacity of learning at heightened rates, as their brains are busy forging synaptic, neuronal connections through experience. In my professional work, I have witnessed remarkable growth in children who have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness as well as with children involved in DMT as a preventive measure.
DMT in early elementary school settings supports learning and development during the critical “window of opportunity;” this window appears to be open from the prenatal period to five years old. One of the strongest implications of brain research has been the identification of critical periods in brain development in which experience may be most effective in forging connections in wiring the brain (Chugani, 1998). Dance/movement therapists approach this critical period by utilizing the child’s capacities holistically, engaging the child experientially using movement, play, and creativity.
To be of maximum benefit, movement experiences should be introduced early in life and during the windows of opportunity. These experiences should “[i]nclude a variety of basic gross-motor activities that involve postural control, coordination of movements, and locomotion . . . Gross-motor activity provides the brain with its chief energy source, glucose. These activities increase blood flow and enhances neuronal connectivity during the critical period” (Gabbard & Rodrigues, 2008). DMT with young children in schools directly addresses brain, body, and psychological development by providing an outlet for motor-skill improvement, creative expression, and the increased ability to learn.
As a dance/movement therapist in a Harlem public elementary school, I primarily provided therapy to children with behavioral, emotional, and developmental disorders. The classroom setting did not always support creative expression or movement as an outlet for emotions or pent-up energy, therefore I found it helpful to “push-in” the classroom and lead movement sequences that incorporated current lessons in mathematics and reading. It was beneficial to share insight with the teacher into the “behavioral outbursts” certain children were having due to hyperactivity symptoms. Through this process, I chose children to participate in DMT groups based upon their needs, goals, and developmental (rather than chronological) age. I also provided individual therapy sessions where I was able to form trusting relationships through creating art, dramatic play, and DMT.
About half of the children I saw for individual therapy were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders and needed support in reinforcing boundaries and healthy ways of communicating. “The basic and immediate goal for children with autism is to focus on establishing contact, trust and rapport. Touch is necessary to help define body boundaries and establish connectedness to the therapist and, in turn, the outside world”, (Levy, 1988, p. 227).
Through twice weekly DMT groups and individual sessions with these children, teachers and parents reported an increase in healthier verbal communication of needs, appropriate use of touch/boundaries with peers, and a decrease in behavioral and emotional outbursts. I saw a wonderful increase in self-awareness and body-boundaries with these children throughout the school year. Through the practice of structured play/dance, exploration of their bodies in space, and connecting with peers through appropriate use of touch, these children were able to generalize their skills in the classroom setting.
Family sessions began to form with siblings of different grade levels, allowing me to understand the family/group dynamic and shifting roles/behaviors of the children. Applying the practice of DMT in new ways allowed me a wide perspective into the behaviors and strengths of the children. Their creativity and development flourished once they felt they had a “safe space” to be themselves; where there were no tests or desks, and their capacity for growth was supported.
In my experiences at different public and private schools, and through the publication and support of creativity and movement’s impact on children’s development, I continue to see the role of DMT progressively shifting from an “adjunctive therapy” to primary therapy in school settings. As dance/movement therapists continue to work in schools, I envision new assessment tools being developed and research initiated, specifically related to how DMT impacts the physical, cognitive, and emotional development of young children during this critical “window of opportunity”.
Chugani, H.T. (1998). A critical period of brain development: Studies of cerebral glucose utilization with PET. Preventive Medicine, 27, 184-188.
Gabbard, C., & Rodrigues, L. (2008). “Optimizing early brain and motor development through movement”. Early Childhood News. A Professional Resource for Parents and Teachers.
Levy, F. (1988). Dance/Movement Therapy: A healing art. American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, Reston, VA. National Dance Association, 227.