Drama: a powerful tool for social skill development

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by Sally Bailey

Disability Solutions Vol. 2 (1), May/June 1997, pp 1, 3-5.

available online at www.disabilitysolutions.org/pdf/2.1.pdf
Cindy, an attractive young woman with developmental disabilities, is gardening in her front yard, enjoying the afternoon sun, when a dashing young man in a black leather jacket drives up on a motorcycle and stops beside her. He gives her the once-over and says, “Hey, I’m a biker dude! I just came to town about an hour or two ago, and I’m looking for a cute girl!”

“Really?” she says, “Do you want to go to the mall?

“Yes! Do you?”
Without thinking twice, Cindy starts to climb onto his bike. “Sure!”
“OK, I’m going to freeze the action in this scene, just for a second,” I say, and turn to the group of drama students with disabilities. “I want to ask the class a question about this situation. This ‘Biker Dude’ guy has just driven into town. He’s a complete stranger. Cindy’s never set eyes on him before and she just said she would go to the mall with him. Is that safe?”
“NO!!!” shout the students watching.
“Why is that not a safe choice?”
“Because she doesn’t know him that well yet.”
“She doesn’t know him at all!”
“She doesn’t even know his name!”
“It’s not safe to go somewhere with a total stranger,” I agree. “So maybe we should start this scene again and let Cindy talk to this guy and find out something about him.”
This time Cindy asks the “Biker Dude” lots of questions and discovers that he’s come to town to look for a job as a mechanic. She doesn’t know of any job openings, but wishes him luck, says goodbye, and goes inside.
That, of course, is not the only way this situation could safely unfold. In subsequent role-plays, the students try out possible situations involving this dangerous, but definitely fascinating stranger. For the duration of the class, students are involved, paying attention, and having a wonderful time learning about how to handle a situation which is every parent’s worst nightmare.
Understanding social situations and how to safely and appropriately interact with other people is important for everyone, but young people who have disabilities often have a more difficult time learning safe and appropriate behaviors. Safety in the community is only one issue. Job transition literature emphasizes that more jobs are lost through inappropriate social behavior than from lack of job skills. Individuals who don’t know how to develop friendships and reach out to others become isolated, depressed, passive, or angry. Successful inclusion in the community is difficult if social skills are lacking; non-disabled community members aren’t welcoming or understanding to an individual who is withdrawn, rude, provocative, or hostile.
The quandary lies not in knowing what skills young people need, but in how best to teach them. I believe drama is the best vehicle for social skills development because drama involves students in concrete, hands-on practice of behavior. Skills are physically and verbally acted out instead of just being talked about, so appropriate behavior becomes very real to the participants. The abstract becomes bodily concrete.
In drama, as in real life, consequences result from actions taken and can’t be ignored. They must, in turn, be dealt with through more action. The reasons for this connection between action and consequence can be discussed, re-played, and, finally, understood by participants and observers alike.
If scenes are re-played with students making different choices and experiencing different consequences, flexibility develops as well as an understanding of cause and effect. Add discussion of scenes to dramatic role-playing sessions and students begin to develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills.
As a drama therapist, I use drama to teach social skills to children, adolescents, and adults who have disabilities. I know from personal experience that dramatic role-playing generates energy, involvement, laughter, connection, excitement, and understanding. Role playing real-life situations and watching others do so allows students to rehearse a skill until it becomes part of their skill repertory.
Can anyone learn through drama? I believe so. Can anyone use drama as a teaching tool? I believe so, too. Developmental psychologists say that all children learn about the world and how to behave in it through deferred imitation, symbolic play, and dramatic play. These informal methods of learning usually begin to develop when children are as young as three and continue into the early elementary school years. In a sense, we are all natural-born actors!
Unfortunately, our educational system has yet to harness this powerful, innate method. The majority of teachers, in both regular and special education, rely on lecture, workbooks, and rote learning. Abstract learning is valued over concrete learning. Eventually, children discontinue their use of drama as an informal learning tool because it is labeled by the adults in their lives as “play” or “make-believe,” grown-up codes words for “unimportant,” “childish,” and “useless.”
Many teachers shy away from using drama as a teaching tool because it seems as if it will take too much energy or effort. Or they think it is a method they couldn’t begin to master without lengthy training. While training in drama does enhance one’s skills as a group leader, using drama is similar to riding a bike: once you’ve learned how to do it, you never forget – and you’ve known how to do it since you were three!
Drama is not only a useful tool for teachers, it’s useful for parents as well. Skill rehearsal can become an enjoyable family game instead of a chore. Rather than lecturing your child about a skill you want her to perform around the house, act it out together. For example, if you want to teach your child appropriate phone manners, bring two phones into the room and pretend to call her from one of them. Let her answer the other and engage her in conversation. Then let her pretend to call you. With practice, she will learn correct phone etiquette.
The most successful approach to dramatic role-playing is one which is open, playful, and non-judgmental. This creates an atmosphere where actors can take chances and try out different behaviors. It can be OK to make a mistake because you can replay the situation and find a way to make it better.
In life, there are many different choices you might make in a given situation. Some choices are better than others. Some choices are safer than others. Some choices are more effective than others. Through drama many choices, both positive and negative, can be explored – without real-life consequences harming the participants.
The decision-making process can be explored step by step during the role play by freezing the action and questioning the actors or having them share what “thoughts are going on in your head right now.” Or the process can be explored afterwards through group discussion.
The other advantage of dramatic role-play is that through role reversal, a child can take on the role of a parent, a student can take on the role of teacher, or a client can take on the role of therapist and see the situation from a different perspective. Dramatically wearing the shoes of the “responsible adults” in their lives helps students begin to understand the need for rules. Role reversal can provide the group leader with a way to evaluate if the message of the lesson has gotten through. An actor, taking on the role of authority, will often wax eloquent as he explains to the actor playing the role of the student the reasons why things are done in a certain way – even though he may never have followed those rules or demonstrated an understanding of them in real life.
Actual authority figures (parents, teachers, job coaches, etc.) can learn a lot about being a child, student, or client from role reversals, too. You might just re-evaluate some of your communication methods after being on the receiving end of a lecture and seeing how you are perceived.
“But,” you ask, “is my child really capable of coming up with sound behavior choices to use in role playing? Will this method really work with him or her?” For the answer to than, let’s look at the choices students made for relating to the “Biker Dude.” On their own, without any prompting from me, the students in my drama class created the following four additional scenarios:
– One girl refused to talk to the “Biker Dude” and went inside her house to get her father to make him go away.
– Another traded phone numbers with him so she could talk with him further before deciding if she wanted to go out with him.
– Another made him give her his phone number, but wouldn’t give our any personal information herself. Then she told him it was time for him to leave; she wasn’t ready to make a decision about whether or not to call him.
– Yet another invited him to come to her house for dinner so he could meet her family and get to know her in a safe environment.
All were viable choices and all were choices that fell into the range of safe and appropriate ways to handle the situation.

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