Engaging with research findings and exploring Dancemotion pilot programme content: Supporting children’s understanding of different emotions through creative, dance-based movement

Twiner, Alison; Lucassen, Mathijs and Tatlow-Golden, Mimi (2021). Engaging with research findings and exploring Dancemotion pilot programme content: Supporting children’s understanding of different emotions through creative, dance-based movement. In: British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, 13-16 Sep 2021, Online.



There is widespread recognition that life can be emotional and challenging, and understanding our own and others’ emotions is an important, early phase of building mental health resilience (Hills, 2016). However, while programmes to support social-emotional learning are proliferating, and various classroom resources are available to encourage discussion of emotions, many programmes and interventions are understandably aimed toward children with identified needs (e.g. Pro Bono Economics’ 2018 evaluation of Place2Be’s counselling service in primary schools) rather than preventative, meaning-making experiences for all. Further, very few acknowledge the difficulty of articulating such abstract and complex concepts particularly where children struggle to express themselves through words. This is not to downplay the role of talk which we agree is central to understanding (Mercer, 2004), but rather to emphasise that some concepts are experienced, felt, observed, before they can be verbally understood (e.g. Sachs, et al., 2018 reporting on how encouraging responses to others’ emotions through embodied representation can support development of empathy). Such support will be even more critical as we move through and beyond the implications of COVID.

In this workshop delegates will experience Dancemotion – a programme offering creative, movement-based opportunities for children to understand emotions, and space to express and discuss these understandings. We build on research evidence that using dance-based movement within teaching-and-learning about complex and abstract concepts is valuable, particularly for pupils who struggle to understand and explain concepts through words alone (Twiner, et al., 2010). This approach had not however been applied explicitly toward the learning of emotions, which is where Dancemotion offers something unique. As an interdisciplinary team embracing mental health, the arts, and education, we explore a different approach to social-emotional learning using dance-based movement – as a feature of ‘creative pedagogy’ (drawing on Chappell, et al., 2019) – to enhance children’s emotional understanding, empathy and resilience. We consider creativity in a ‘little c’ sense (Craft, 2001), aiming not for children to invent something ground-breaking, but to explore ideas in meaningful and engaging ways.

Delegates will get a flavour of how Dancemotion does this by using dance-based movement, alongside other tools – including video, images, music, books and talk. Critically, teachers’ (and workshop delegates’) interest and engagement with the content is more important than experience or confidence in dance (Twiner, et al., 2010).

Pilot research

Dancemotion was piloted with two classes in an English state school within the school’s existing timetable. Class teachers were involved in planning and delivering lessons, together with dance specialists, to support relationship building with pupils and embed the approach within school life. The focus of Dancemotion is on social-emotional learning for all, not therapy for those identified as ‘at risk’. Mindful of potential responses to material, a mental health practitioner was involved in planning and monitoring the pilot.

We video-recorded lessons; audio-recorded post-lesson discussions with the two teachers, mental health specialist, dance specialist and researcher; and audio-recorded post-programme interviews with the dance specialist and mental health specialist. All recorded data was transcribed for analysis.

Workshop aims

In the workshop we demonstrate how Dancemotion structures lessons around focal emotions, using dance and other stimuli to encourage improvised movement and discussion around the feelings and meanings of different emotions. Delegates will be invited to take part in a taster-version of Dancemotion – at a level they feel comfortable – exploring the multimodal materials and experience for themselves. Delegates will also view lesson extracts to witness the exploratory and creative impact Dancemotion has on pupils as they co-constructed multimodal meanings.

We utilise sociocultural discourse analysis (Mercer, 2004) combined with multimodal analysis (drawing on Jewitt, 2009; Twiner, 2011) to explore interactions, activities and constructed meanings within the lesson data; and thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) to delve into reflections voiced in post-lesson discussions and post-programme interviews.


Dancemotion’s creative, interdisciplinary approach offers something unique: emphasising the importance of context and individuals’ experiences and understandings, in exploring and co-constructing meanings around emotions that make sense for them, which in turn has potential to impact positively on children throughout childhood and beyond. Further iterations aim to develop a programme that can be used by schools and embedded without the need for onsite dance or mental health specialists. The pilot work has been critical in trialling these concepts, addressing this important but arguably ‘risky’ challenge in a ‘non-traditional’ way. We argue it is precisely because of these risks that this work is so crucial, and through sharing research-informed evidence and resources we can support practitioners to engage in creative, safe, enjoyable and meaningful exploration of emotional understanding with their pupils.


Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101. 

Chappell, K., Cremin, T., Wren, H., Ben-Horin, O., Nikolopoulos, K., Hetherington, L., Bogner, F., Natanel, K., Ruck Keene, H. & Robbertad, J. (2019). Creative Pedagogies: Synthesising current theorising and empirical research. Symposium presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, 10-12th September, Manchester, UK.

Craft, A. (2001). Little c Creativity. In: A. Craft, R. Jeffrey, & M. Leibling (Eds). Creativity in education. London and New York: Continuum, pp. 45–61.

Hills, R. (2016). An evaluation of the emotional literacy support assistant (ELSA) project from the perspectives of primary school children. Educational & Child Psychology, 33(4), 50-65.

Jewitt, C. (Ed.) (2009). The Routledge handbook of multimodal analysis. London: Routledge.

Mercer, N. (2004). Sociocultural discourse analysis: Analysing classroom talk as a social mode of thinking. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 1(2), 137-168. 

Pro Bono Economics (2018). Economic evaluation of Place2Be’s Counselling Service in Primary Schools. Available at: https://www.place2be.org.uk/media/5cgpoqiz/economic-evaluation-of-place2be-counselling-service.pdf. (Accessed 13 February 2021)

Sachs, M.E., Kaplan, J. & Habibi, A. (2019). Echoing the emotions of others: Empathy is related to how adults and children map emotion onto the body. Cognition & Emotion, 33(8), 1639-1654. DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2019.1591938.

Twiner, A., Coffin, C., Littleton, K. & Whitelock, D. (2010). LearnPhysical interactive evaluation: Autumn and Spring term, 2009/2010. Available at: https://www.theplace.org.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/LearnPhysical%20Interactive%20Evaluation.pdf (Accessed 13 February 2021)

Twiner, A. (2011). Sociocultural understandings of technology-mediated educational practices: improvable objects and meaning-making trajectories in the ICT-literate classroom. PhD thesis. The Open University.

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