Dancing for Resilience: Dance as a protective factor ...
DANCING FOR RESILIENCE:
Dance-Based Intervention as a Protective Factor in General and Special Education
EDUC 264N, Fall 2009
DANCING FOR RESILIENCE:
Dance-Based Intervention as a Protective Factor in General and Special Education
Upon review of the various risk factors associated with placement in special education, it
becomes clear that general education classrooms and schools on the whole are intensely diverse.
Children with varied early childhood experience, parent educational experience and parenting
style, and several existing medical, non-medical, and judgmental diagnoses come together in one
learning space. It is the responsibility of the teaching and support staff to know how to
effectively address each child’s individual needs, but unfortunately the incredible diversity
among students can make effectively managing schools and classrooms difficult. Educational
literature discusses the potential benefits of implementing a multi-tiered, universal behavior
management system in order to proactively control problem behavior and teach necessary skills,
thereby better preparing the students to engage in learning activities with the teacher, peers, or
alone. This paper discusses how dance-based therapies might serve as a part of a proactive,
multi-tiered intervention that supports reduced problem behavior, boosts neurological activity,
and encourages feelings of community and social respect.
Today’s Diverse Classrooms
As mentioned, general education classrooms are increasingly diverse. Students of varied
ethnicities, family structures, and other demographic constructs fill our schools. These students,
as a result of movements including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and
adoption of policy favoring Positive Behavior Support (PBS), are also increasingly diverse
across a spectrum of behaviors, readiness skills, and levels of motivation. Teachers in general
education classes must be able to support a number of individualized programs as well as carry
out class lessons and administrative duties. According to McLeskey et al. (1999, as cited in
Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Gallini, Simmons, and Feggins-Azziz 2006), in the 1999-2000 school
year over 95 percent of students with disabilities were served in general education buildings.
While some of these students did receive supports outside the classroom, almost half of the cited
95 percent received services outside the classroom less than 21 percent of the day. In order to
ensure the success of this diverse group, teachers therefore must be increasingly aware of
potential risk factors and have access to effective interventions for the diagnoses or other
individual setbacks each student might exhibit.
In considering this ever -growing diversity, several other confounding factors come to
mind. It is accepted theory that children experiencing several risk factors will be much more
likely to need special services than those who have few risk factors (NRC 2002 ch. 3).
Particularly in low-socioeconomic neighborhoods, children come to school with behavioral or
cognitive difficulties caused by early childhood experience. Low birth weight, poor nutrition,
exposure to lead, and even level of parent education have been demonstrated to have individual
effects, and studies show that compounded risk factors almost exponentially increase risk (NRC
2002 ch. 3, Dearing, Krieder, Simpkins & Weiss 2006). Cultural diversity is also offered as a
risk factor for special education referral (NRC 2002 ch.5). Children may arrive at school with an
incorrect medical diagnosis, as research shows that behavioral patterns and identifying
characteristics can be similar across different diagnostic categories. Cornish, Turk, and
Hagerman (2008) present compelling evidence for the similarities between Fragile X syndrome,
Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Attention-Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder. While each of
these three labels may present similarly, the cause of observed behaviors may actually be quite
different, and therefore any incorrect diagnoses may trigger a teacher to incorrectly manage
behavioral and academic issues that may arise. With such trouble managing medical diagnoses,
one can only imagine the problems that could be causes by potential mismanagement of non-
medical, judgmental labels such as Emotional Disturbance or Learning Disabilities.
Understanding the growing diversity of the students in today’s general and special
education environments is an important first step in deciding how to design educational
programming. Upon considering the many risks students may posses prior to beginning school,
and the ways in which intervention can be confounded, how to appropriately serve a group of 15
to 30 young minds while could prove a daunting task for even the most experienced of teachers.
Fortunately, researchers have made efforts to devise intervention program strategies that address
the MOST COMMON causes of recommendation for special services, which the research
presented in this section suggest to be a) problem behavior and b) readiness to learn.
Current Understandings of Widely Applicable Interventions
In 2002, the National Research Council (NRC, ch. 5) suggested that improving general
education can reduce special education placements for disadvantaged students. In other words,
by improving general education to address the risk factors that cause referral for and placement
in special education services, students can be kept out of special education and therefore overall
numbers of special education enrollment can therefore be reduced. The Council continues by
making an argument that schools must develop protective, therapeutic interventions that can be
effective for a wide range of risk factors by both reducing problem behavior and increasing
readiness to learn. In particular, the NRC emphasizes the need for interventions on behavior,
citing negative classroom behaviors as one of the top reasons children are recommended for
special services. Other researchers have presented similar findings, both empirically and
qualitatively through the eyes of teachers. For example, Skiba, Simmons, Ritter, Kohler,
Henderson & Wu (2006) offer the accounts of several teachers in a mid-western city to illustrate
how more time is spent managing the social aspect of the classroom than teaching core
curriculum. As a result, students may become at increased risk by way of delayed or incomplete
In addition to behavior issues and basic academic readiness skills, existing literature
presents a third construct influencing risk and academic achievement, motivation. Particularly in
regards to reading there exists evidence that increased motivation can increase achievement.
Guthrie, Mcrae & Klauda (2007) describe intrinsic motivation, perceived autonomy, self-
efficacy, collaboration, and maintaining a mastery-goal orientation (truly learning the material as
opposed to just satisfying academic requirement) as processes through which students gain
overall motivation for reading. Through an increase in relevance of reading material and
allowing student actions to guide choice of material used and lessons learned through
collaborative assignments, students feel connected to the material as well as their learning
environment. Guthrie and colleagues empirically demonstrate how a focus on these 5
motivational constructs in reading instruction can have an impact on both reading achievement
and overall motivation for students (Guthrie et al. 2007). Interestingly, a 2004 study in Korea
also found positive effects of including self-efficacy and achievement-goal orientations in the
reading curriculums of high school girls. Further, subject-specific motivations were strongly
correlated with motivations for general school learning (Bong 2004).
Current research and policy favor proactive, widely applicable interventions that are able
to simultaneously reduce problem behavior and foster motivation and self-efficacy. The NRC
make several recommendations to policy makers in chapter 10 of their 2002 text that include
providing funds to research universal behavior management interventions that will assist those
identified by the system as well as those who may be missed. Further, there is evidence that
Positive Behavior Support, an adaptation Applied Behavior Analysis that calls for functional
changes in behavior accompanied by exercise in self –determination and goal achievement, can
be used at individual, class, and school-wide levels to improve behavioral conduct and student
achievement (Carr, Dunlap, Horner, Koegel, Turnbull, Sailor, Anderson, Albin, Koegel & Fox
2002 and Hieneman, Dunlap, & Kincaid 2005). Proactive support at the school level has
potential benefits for students in both general and special education, as it promotes appropriate
academic conduct and is also adaptable to many levels of functioning (Hieneman et al. 2005).
The remainder of this paper will discuss the potential of a dance/movement-based therapy
to benefit educational populations as part of a proactive, comprehensive intervention.
Purposefully and regularly implementing dance instruction to general and special education
curriculums is hypothesized to reduce problem behavior, improve academic readiness skills, and
promote motivation and feelings of community- major areas of reform as defined by the authors
cited above. By reviewing research first regarding the behavioral and emotional benefits of
dance, followed by evidence of effect on cognitive and motivational constructs, the positive
effects of dance instruction on behavioral conduct and academic achievement should become
Defining Dance-Based Interventions
Dance-based interventions and the therapies to be discussed in this paper must first and
foremost be regarded as structured, intentional interventions designed to exercise a particular
area of skill. Exact structure and type of activities employed might vary widely across
acquisition goals and level of cognitive function. For all participants, however, movement must
be more than empty gesture, and can be so much more than physical exercise alone. Though
there are documented cases of dance as a physical therapy, the focus of this paper remains on a
dance as a holistic intervention that may be useful as a protective factor against many sources of
risk in education.
Common among dance-based therapies for both uni- and multi-dimensional purposes,
though, is a regular and frequent schedule of dance practice. Examples, to be presented later,
that illustrate the application of dance-based interventions suggest dance exposure for 15-60
minutes at a time, at least 3 times a week (Hartshorn et al 2001, Lara). As will be illustrated in
the following sections, the effects of dance on academic readiness are adaptable to a variety of
contexts, and though the viewpoints expressed here will concentrate on school-aged individuals
there is evidence that life-long immersion in the art, or intimate knowledge of dance and dance
performance, can enhance some of the effects to be discussed later on (Fink, Graif, & Neubauer
2009). Not only can dance-based therapies be easily adapted for different age groups, there is
benefit in extended experience. Borrowing the idea form Positive Behavior Support that service
for some individuals is a life-long process (Carr et al 2002), it is possible to imagine the potential
longitudinal effects of dance instruction for individuals with disabilities. And though the
remainder of this document discusses the potential benefits of dance in contexts affecting school-
aged children, the ideas expressed should not necessarily be limited to that population.
Dance; Behavioral and Emotional Effects
As previously discussed, problem behavior is one of the top reasons children are referred
to special education (NRC 2002 and Skiba 2006). Goldstein, et al. (1980), Patterson (1986), and
others have been cited believing that young children who exhibit disruptive behaviors upon
school entry are not equipped with the necessary skills to develop healthy social relationships
(NRC 2002 ch. 3). In this capacity, behavior is a prerequisite to both building social
relationships and improving academic readiness. This section will explore how dance instruction
can improve focus, help to regulate emotions, and therefore improve overall behavioral conduct.
In 2002 Hartshorn, Olds, Field, Delage, Cullen, and Escalona issued evidence for
reductions in problem behavior among children with autism. Following 2 months of regular
movement therapy sessions, children were observed to be statistically more attentive, spending
more time at least watching the teacher, less time wandering, and had fewer negative reactions to
teacher instruction or being touched. Yoga-based therapies have also demonstrated positive
effects for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Through core principles including social
interaction, self-calming, and physical stimulation, movement based therapies are considered to
meet sensory needs as well as boost social confidence and interaction (Kenny 2002).
Both Hartshorn and Kenny present dance as a holistic intervention approach that supports
both the cognitive and behavioral difficulties associated with autism. Further, Kenny’s 2002
review on yoga-based therapy reports observed successes with a much more diverse population,
including individuals with ADHD, LD, Pervasive Development Delays, and Dyspraxia. One
study illustrates how children diagnosed with ED and LD experience improvements following a
regular dance therapy sessions as part of a complex intervention. By establishing a safe
environment and exploring themselves physically and emotionally, students work toward both
creative and social goals (Bannon 1994). Through a program designed to integrate emotion with
the physical aspects of dance, therapists encourage children to address emotional conflict in a
safe and non-threatening manner therefore reducing the problem behavior that could put them at
risk for additional services (Bannon 1994). To discuss the increasingly broad behavioral effects
of dance-based therapies, we take Erwin-Graber, Goodill, Hill, and Von Neida’s 1999 account
into consideration, where participation in dance/movement therapy reduced self-reported test
anxiety among university students. From specific diagnoses to general populations, regular
participation in dance or movement based therapies appears to have positive effects on both
quality of behavior and emotional regulation.
Some researchers have demonstrated that simply watching dance can have emotional
effect. Berrol (2006) offers two examples where fMRI highlights the excitement of mirror
neurons in observers of dance as they watch and interpret the movement. Areas of the brain
responsible for emotion and language light up in addition to those areas related to auditory and
visual stimuli, hypothesized as both increasing full brain activity and promoting feelings of
empathy. This study will be discussed in greater detail at a later point, but it does offer a
platform from which to close discussion on emotion and behavior and begin thinking about the
influence dance can have on cognitive process and the advanced benefit of dance therapy over
other art-based interventions such as music or yoga therapy.
Dance; Cognitive Effects
The use of fMRI technology has opened new worlds to understanding the effects of
music and dance. Music in particular has long been associated with positive behavioral and
cognitive effects. Some literature has demonstrated how not only can using musical mnemonic
devices improve recall, but they are associated with increased coherence between the left and
right hemispheres during EEG testing (Peterson & Thant 2007). Neuroimaging studies have
revealed activation of the amygdala, hippocampus, and areas in the midbrain that show
correlation to self-reported positive emotions (Koelsch 2009). While music production in
suggested to have increased benefits, the presence of mirror-neurons allows similar effects to be
had by simply listening to music (Koelsch 2009). Understanding the effect of listening to music
on neuroactivity is critical, as more often than not music will be experienced simultaneously with
dance and studies have shown that listening to and structuring movement to rhythmic cues has
potential benefit particularly for motor control problems associated with neurological disorder
(Bernardi, Aggujaro, Caimmi, Molteni, Maravita, Luzzatti 2009).
Some dance interventions today use this idea of brain stimulation borrowed from music
therapy, but also strive to build upon it. In a program entitled Autism Movement Therapy
(AMT), therapists lead students through a series of clapping and other rhythm-making exercises
with and without music (Lara). Also key is a focus on cross-axial movement, based on the idea
that motor control is served by the opposite side of the brain one intends to move. By alternating
movements that reach across the mid-point of the body, communication between hemispheres
can be increased (Lara). Add this to our understanding of music and increased activity in areas
of the brain responsible for emotion, mostly the frontal lobes, and the engagement of both the
motor cortex and occipital lobe added by moving and watching while dancing. By using the
AMT technique, participants are experiencing whole-brain activity, thought to increase- even if
only briefly- overall cognitive activity and function (Lara).
Particularly understanding the previous discussion on music and neuro-activity, along
with ideas employed by programs like AMT, not only do there emerge advantages of dance
therapies over those without direct relationships to music, such as the yoga-based intervention
discussed earlier, but one must consider the implications for individuals with disabilities that
involve problems with cognitive mapping and transfer of information. Cornish et al (2008)
describe in their molecular overview of Fragile X syndrome the impaction of proteins within the
Central Nervous System on both cognitive plasticity and structure. It is the viewpoint of some
executors of dance-based therapies that the “waking up” of the brain can encourage overall
neuro-activity, potentially improving acquisition of stimuli and storage of information by forging
new pathways around damaged areas of the brain. Children diagnosed with Autism Related
Disorders may have white matter damage, for which due to its plasticity is hypothesized that
programs like AMT help the brain to re-map around damage using teaching techniques such as
clapping imitation, axial and locomotor movement, and dance’s common practice of moving in
eight count measures (Lara).
It is unfortunate that direct, quantitative evidence to support dance-based intervention
programs is limited, but there is certainly a large social validity regarding creative interventions
for individuals for special needs, particularly in regards to Autism Spectrum Disorder. But while
this enhances to my overall argument, please recall that the focus of this paper is to examine the
possibility for a widely applicable intervention that can be adapted for use at all levels of
education. Allow me to offer, in this case, an article my McMahon, Rose, and Parks issued in
2003. In this quantitative comparison of scores on the PhonoGraphix test, a reading evaluation
that measures code knowledge and phoneme segmentation skills, was completed to understand
the effect of a dance-based reading intervention administered to first graders in general education
in place of other, unstructured reading activity. By pairing sound to movement, following a
structured program, and encouraging collaboration, trained dance instructors created an
environment in which data suggest consonant and vowel recognition as well as phoneme
segmentation for first, second, third, and fourth sounds improved significantly over control
groups (McMahon et al 2003). Dance has also been used to illustrate poems, tell stories, express
theory, and enhance understanding. By activating several areas of the brain simultaneously,
additional pathways to the information stored in these areas should allow it to be more easily
accessible and therefore enhancing overall grasp of concept (Lara).
Hopefully, with time, more evidence can be revealed demonstrating the effect of dance
on cognitive process and academic learning. While an underdeveloped area of research, some
scholars propose the knowledge that can be gained about the link between emotion and cognitive
experience by understanding response to culture-specific dances as shown through neuro-
imaging techniques (Dale, Hyatt & Hollerman 2007). Information in this area could lead to a
greater understanding of the complex cognitive processes involved with both doing and watching
dance. Recall earlier discussion of Berrol’s research (2006) on mirror-neurons which
demonstrates how observing dance can produce similar feelings to, or in other words a state of
empathy for, the person performing the dance. Not only does fMRI technology allow
researchers to observe increased cortical activity as occurs through dance experience, but by
highlighting activity in the areas of the brain responsible for empathy and social regulation it
demonstrates the biological connection between dance and emotion (Berrol 2006). Here, now,
the link between dance, behavior, cognition, and the following ideas surrounding motivation and
community begins to strengthen.
Increasing Motivation and Feelings of Community
Consider the examples of dance-based therapies of Autism Movement Therapy and
McMahon’s reading study of general education students. Though this branch of research is in its
infancy, possibilities appear emergent in generalizing dance as an intervention to decrease
overall risk by providing behavioral and cognitive benefits in a variety of educational contexts.
Also, it can be considered that through its potential to reduce problem behavior, increase
language skill, and appropriately channel emotion, dance can improve overall readiness to learn.
It would not be out of the question to suggest that an improved approach to the learning process
can improve general confidence level. Further, it is a goal of programs like AMT and as well as
behavior-based interventions like Positive Behavior Support, to promote an increased motivation
toward learning through systems of reinforcement and a focus on increasing self-efficacy/self-
determination (Carr et al 2002, Hieneman et al 2005, Lara). Recall the work of Guthrie et al and
how feelings of motivation and self-efficacy may be associated with gains in reading (Guthrie et
al 2007). Apparent becomes the possibility that dance-based therapies might simultaneously
build the behavioral and motivational prerequisites to learning as well as enhance the learning
process at neurological level, in effect boosting overall performance in school.
One final area of consideration has the potential too further the proposed effect of dance
on academics. In a source cited several times in the theoretical framework of this paper,
Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education, the authors offer the issue of cultural
diversity as a potential source of bias in the education of minority students. They make a point
that a teacher’s ability to connect with his or her students in a way that expresses respect and care
can play a great role in whether or not classroom management techniques will be effective (NRC
2002 ch. 5). There exists evidence that, as a result of moving together in time and space, group
dancing can encourage social identification and feelings of community (Schmais 1985). Also of
interest is the idea that posture sharing, or sharing/mimicking body positions can increase
positive feelings towards a partner in a dyad (Navarre 1982). To extrapolate, and touching on
earlier discussions regarding the link between dance and empathy, dancing together a class or a
school may very well increase positive feelings towards and between teachers and peers. From
here it may be deduced that not only can dance-based interventions improve academic readiness,
but also increase feelings of empathy in a way as to soften cultural barriers.
To further consider the potential for dance to promote positive social relationships,
consider this example in which dance has been used to improve typical student’s attitudes toward
disabled students. Wolf & Launi, in a 1996 presentation to the Annual International Convention
of the Council for Exceptional Children, follow teams of middle school students during
instruction in modern dance technique as a means to express feelings. Students were assigned to
each team with intentional integration of students with special needs in a common environment
with more typical children. A counselor provided support in maintaining mutual respect during
dance instruction, and students were afforded creative influence for a final performance (Wolf &
Launi 1996). As with other examples of dance-based interventions offered earlier, there is no
empirical evidence that this intervention was successful. And while it is possible to assume that
therefore there may be no merit to the current argument, I resign to the previous discussion that
this area of research is limited at current time and therefore must absorb all bits of knowledge
that might spark future inquiry.
Certainly the lack of quantitative evidence for the success of dance-based interventions
severely threatens the validity of many statements issued in this document, but perhaps
additional years of research in this area will produce more substantial evidence. Perhaps, indeed,
dance-based interventions will be as difficult to understand as the very educational risk factors
they are designed to counteract. Also in need of attention is the issue that many of the articles
cited for their focus on the neurological processes on dance come from international sources. It
would be quite possible that the findings included cannot be generalized to the populations
described in the theoretical portion of this paper. Not only is it important to recall the many
domestic examples also presented, but an outlook on “dance as a universal language” can
hopefully encourage researchers to seek out similar results locally.
Another consideration that must be made of the current literature sample are Hartshorn
and colleague’s findings that active on-task behavior did not improve, the main statistical effect
being the increase in passive on-task behaviors. Though it is possible to say that because
engagement is only passive that the full described benefit of the dance intervention will not be
reached, further contemplation on Berrol’s account that simply watching dance can produce
neurological effects allows that in the case of Hartshorn, passive observation of the instructor
was effective in reducing off-task behavior. Longitudinal research might reveal if the passive
engagement displayed by the participants in Hartshorn’s study can eventually lead to active
engagement, thereby affording the maximum benefit.
By demonstrating benefits including reduced off-task behavior, improved social skills
and interpersonal relationships, and the whole-brain activity encouraged by pairing specific types
of movement with music, it becomes evident that implementing a regular, purposeful regimen of
dance might improve the overall well-being of students in both general and special education.
Though data on existing dance interventions is quite lacking, there is a good base upon which to
begin building a framework and developing hypotheses for future research. Risk is inevitable, as
is the diversity of the children filling today’s classrooms. But research shows how protective
factors- including broadly-applicable, behavior management systems- can increase resilience and
reduce the number of students recommended for special services. Dance holds the potential to
not only influence behavior and emotion, but also to boost neuro-activity, which might facilitate
the acquisition of academic skills. Therefore, it can be considered that dance might support a
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