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ePublication of Australian Fitness Network

Strategies that result in better student behaviour will facilitate a far more positive experience for everyone involved, writes instructor Mel Morony.


  • Many instructors find it difficult to engage groups of high school-age students in their group exercise classes
  • Setting expectations prior to class, as well as speaking respectfully and giving clear instructions can help to establish the tone you require for a successful class
  • Using screens and other tools can help to engage participants
  • You may need to adjust the language you use to make it more audience-appropriate and avoid giggling fits that anatomical references can provoke
  • Strategically-timed amendments to regular class formats can help to maintain the interest when attention spans start to fade.
  • With these strategies in place, you should expect better student behaviour and little need to resort to using discipline.

The instructor looks around the room in exasperation. One of their participants is moving with no attention to technique, another is playing with their phone and, if it is a cycle class, yet another has adjusted their handlebars to a comical height. Oh, did I mention that the participants are teenagers who have come with a school group?

The instructor feels caught between a rock and a hard place. They know the statistics concerning obesity in Australia – especially among young people. They also know that one of the reasons why they are on that stage, bike or gym floor is to try and reverse the trajectory of those statistics. They want to provide a positive experience for the participants so that they will want to continue with exercise. But getting the students on board with this scheme is proving to be a challenge…

In a previous article, I wrote about the tips and techniques to help deliver fun and effective aqua classes for kids. In this article, we’ll focus on the high school-age school groups that come through our clubs and facilities, usually to participate in land-based fitness programs.

Many industry colleagues struggle with teaching school groups. A couple of years ago at FILEX, I attended a workshop on this subject by the wonderful Mindy Mylrea. I proceeded to implement her principles in my classes with teens, while also adding a few of my own techniques, and have found it to make a big difference. We’ll use cycle and Pilates for some of the examples, but a number of the principles are also applicable to a wide range of other programs.

Class management starts outside the studio

Setting boundaries with the students needs to start outside of the studio.

Setting expectations

When I take a school group I stand in the foyer outside of where the class is going to take place and wait for everyone to arrive, including those who are still taking their time in the changerooms. I have had teachers suggest that I just start without them, but the time outside the room is the crux of setting boundaries and expectations, so I hold my ground.

Non-commanded respect

When all of the students are present, I will greet them in exactly the same way that I greet my adult participants: ‘Good morning ladies and gentlemen.’ This may surprise them, but it sets a tone of respect. While the classroom teacher can command respect from the students because there are consequences back at school for disrespect, this is not the case for Group Fitness Instructors. Non-commanded respect is something that has to be given in order for reciprocation to occur. The result is that generally the students will choose to respect the instructor, resulting in better behaviour.

Clear instructions

I will then tell them exactly what I want them to do when we get into the studio space. This includes where I want them to put their bags, including their phones. If we are on bikes, I will specify that they are to stand next to the bike that they choose. I will also tell them where in the studio I want them to set up and what gear they should get – if any.

Establish a focused environment

Most studios have some kind of equipment around their perimeter, while others may be shared spaces with creche facilities and have toys up the back. Specifying step-by-step what I want them to do when we get into the room means that they are less likely to ‘play’ with the equipment or the toys. Keeping them in a space that is easy to define (for example, the first two rows of bikes) will also make it easier to maintain eye contact with each student – which reduces the likelihood of them getting up to mischief.

Make changes to meet your market

They may be almost the same size as adults, but their brains work a little differently, and instructing them in the exact same way you would your regular classes can prove problematic. With some small adjustments, however, you can deliver a class that connects with your young participants.

The tools of engagement

While the content of some classes or workouts cannot be changed much, or at all, you may be able to adjust your delivery in order to engage with teenagers. For example, some facilities have video programs that can be displayed in their cycle room, and guess what? Teens love screens. Whether the video matches the workout is of low importance in this setting: what is important is maintaining the students’ attention. So, make use of what visual resources are at hand, and interact with what’s happening on screen if appropriate. If the video program is based in another country, for example, and you happen to know a few words of that language, maybe throw in a couple of phrases – a ‘bonjour’ for a MyRide journey through France, for example.

Get linguistically creative

If you are teaching a freestyle program then, aside from safety guidelines, you are afforded a decent amount of flexibility. Don’t be afraid to make use of it. When I first started instructing to school groups, I found the hardest class to teach was Pilates, because I was trying to teach it to the ‘pattern’ that I would do with adults, and this would result in behavioural problems.

One of the school’s goals for fitness facility excursions will be student exposure to regular versions of exercise formats, but this isn’t always entirely possible – at least not if you want the class to be effective. With some slight tweaks, however, you can make your instruction more audience-appropriate without losing the essence of the class.

I restructured my Teen Pilates classes and now teach the first 15 minutes as an almost-standard Pilates class. I do, however, modify a couple of things during that time – the most important being how I teach lateral thoracic breathing. In a class of adults, I usually incorporate references to the pelvic floor. However, doing this in a teen class will result in giggles, especially from the girls, which makes it a lot harder to keep control of the group. So, instead of referring to the pelvic floor, I describe how I want them to activate the transverse abdominus. Since the two muscles are neurologically linked, engagement of one should result in engagement of the other.

Keep their attention!

Around the 15-minute mark the students’ attention span will be waning, so, from there I go outside the box. If I have props, I will set up stations and do a circuit of moves with them, otherwise I will pick three to four bi-lateral moves that we covered in the first 15 minutes and tell them I want them to see how many times they can get through them in five minutes. At other times I will set up partner or relay games, in which one partner might move across the room and back (crab walking with a Theraband for example) while the other partner performs another movement, swapping when the travelling partner returns. I may be committing sacrilege, but my priority is engaging the students so that they have a positive fitness experience and look forward to returning.

When discipline is necessary

While the teacher has the legal duty of care for the students, setting the boundaries and engaging with the class in these ways results in my very rarely having to discipline the kids or call upon the teacher for assistance. The exception is where bullying, harassment or discrimination is taking place among the students, in which instance I would get the teacher involved as it must be sorted out at the school. In the event of the teacher brushing off the incident, I would have a very serious discussion with my manager, complete an incident report and follow the guidelines set out for the safety and protection of young people. To not do so could be a breach of my duty of care in that context.

A positive experience for all

Employing strategies that result in better behaviour on the part of the students is a win win win, as it makes for a far more positive experience for everyone involved – the students, teachers and instructor. If the students have positive experiences, they are more likely to continue exercising. Who knows? Down the track they may even join the facility and participate in our regular classes!

Mel Morony
Mel is a group fitness instructor based in Eastern Melbourne. She is passionate about raising standards in the area of group fitness, for both participants and instructors.


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