Social Competence and Drama Therapy: The Art and the Science

byMecca Burns, RDT-BCT

A richly dramatic story is irresistible to children (as well as adults!) Just consider the books, movies, games, and real life events that enrich and enliven your child’s world.

Now envision that your child could literally step into his most beloved story with his whole body, as well as his mind and imagination. And that once he is part of the story, he has a chance to help determine the outcome by experimenting with various choices. To do this he must communicate and negotiate with the other players-the other characters in the story.

What I am describing (as you may have guessed) is not the latest electronic marvel, but the most time-honored, time-tested way for children to learn about social interaction: make-believe dramatic play.

In the field of psychology, there is virtually no controversy about the value of play for children-especially in today’s world. What better way to process the mountains of information children receive in a day? Through active, imaginative play they can use their muscles and their senses to organize and synthesize this information.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more vivid than in the acquisition of interpersonal skills. Dramatic play offers a portal into the social world: Via an exciting storyline, children are motivated to play together cooperatively, to invent and adhere to rules that make play satisfying. They naturally seek out others to play the roles needed to help populate the worlds they are co-creating. A child who has novel, interesting ideas and can communicate them clearly, and who is receptive to other kids’ ideas, becomes a valued playmate.

Drama therapy gives children a place to practice these skills of communicating, negotiating roles and navigating environments to create and enact a narrative together.

In the stories themselves, the characters get tangled up in all kinds of difficulties, which the drama group helps sort out. Often the characters’ own difficulties with social skills trip them up, and the children not only recognize mistakes but can offer alternative behaviors.

Social Skills Goals Accomplished through Dramatic Play:
In our drama therapy program, we work with parents to develop a set of goals through which we will monitor the child’s progress throughout the year. Here are some examples of friendship skills that develop, broken down into more specific skill sets:

Turn Taking and Sharing Skills:

  • Share and take turns
  • Initiate and sustain back and forth play

Communication Skills:

  • Stand up for one’s own idea while still respecting others’ wishes
  • Express dislikes appropriately
  • Listen and respond to peers’ ideas
  • Maintain back-and-forth conversation
  • Listen and respond to peers’ ideas
  • Communicate and observe personal space boundaries

Emotional Awareness and Attunement Skills:

  • Recognize nonverbal indications of friendliness, boredom, annoyance, embarrassment, approval, etc.
  • Be able to apologize
  • Recognize bragging, tattling, and sarcasm
  • Offer comfort and empathy
  • Tolerate one’s own and others’ mistakes

Environmental and Community Awareness:

  • Negotiate rules together and stick with them
  • Differentiate between real and pretend
  • Handle transitions between activities

Neuroscience and Drama Therapy
Now that neuroscience has given us a fuller understanding of brain and behavior, we can apply this knowledge to exploring how drama therapy actually works. Concepts like mirror neurons, theory of mind, and executive functioning can be illuminated through examining the drama therapy process.

Mirror neurons allow us to interpret the actions of others and to learn by imitation. When we watch a person smile, frown, or reach out their hand, we can guess what the expression means to that person-and what it might mean to us.

Difficulties with social relationships and perspective-taking may result from problems with the functioning of mirror neurons. When signals cannot be interpreted quickly enough, children may withdraw into isolation or behave disruptively. When the mirror neuron system is compromised, extra practice is needed to learn to interpret social cues and develop interpersonal skills. Drama provides ample practice in both imitation and interpretation of signals like facial expressions, gestures, proximity, and tone of voice.

The term “theory of mind” describes another important ability central to the development of healthy social skills. Theory of mind refers to an ability that typically developing children begin to have by age 3 to 4 years old. This is when children begin to be able to recognize other people as beings who think and have their own desires, intentions, and beliefs that may differ from their own.

The essence of drama is playing different roles, thus experiencing life from different points of view. By stepping into someone else’s shoes, children come to realize that everyone doesn’t see things the same way.

Individuals who have developed a theory of mind are more adept at determining the intentions of others. They have a deeper understanding of how their behavior affects others, and they can engage in social reciprocity.

Executive Functioning. Dramatic play uses the executive functions of self-regulation, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

Self-regulation develops gradually in children (as you may have noticed!) It allows us to manage our attention and our actions, rather than our being controlled by external stimuli, by our emotions, or by habitual behaviors.

In drama, children must self-regulate to act appropriately for their characters. If they impulsively do something “out of character,” other children are likely to object. In fact, playing a character can usher in strengths and skills that were never seen before, including self-regulation. In a famous study, children were timed to see how long they were able to stand perfectly still. Later they were again asked to stand still as long as possible, but this time they were asked to pretend they were soldiers standing guard. On average the children were able to hold still eleven times longer when motivated by playing the role.

Working memory, another aspect of executive functioning, refers to the ability to hold information in mind and to actively work with the information. In drama, it allows us to remember the character we are playing, along with other people’s characters, our mission, the environment we find ourselves in, and the perils that may lurk ahead. Working memory helps us to remember plans and instructions, to consider alternatives, and to integrate past, present, and future. It allows us to see connections between diverse elements, an important aspect of creativity.

Cognitive flexibility allows us to consider something from a fresh perspective– to mentally switch back and forth between possibilities. Often in everyday life it is necessary to adjust our thinking or attention to respond to changing situations. In an improvised drama scenario, we are constantly adapting to unexpected twists and turns of the plot. Thus we are developing cognitive flexibility while involved in the pleasure and excitement of a narrative that the group is constructing together.

Here are some examples of creative options generated by one group in building a story about “Pirates and Spies”:

  • “Spy team has parachutes, with cars, planes, helicopters all following pirates”
  • “Sharks eat anything that’s not a spy because they know who the spies are”
  • “Helicopters take the pirates to jail”
  • “When a spy is coming, there is a light to act as a warning”
  • “Special juice inside the pearls can help you walk on water”

The Magic Box

We close each session with a drama therapy tradition: the Magic Box. Together we bring an invisible container down from the ceiling, and in it we place all of the characters, objects, settings, feelings, and ideas that were played with during the session. This is a way of acknowledging and appreciating everyone’s contributions just by naming them one last time. Many ideas are hatched in the flurry and excitement of the group, so the Magic Box helps us to summarize and organize our thoughts, and tests our powers of recall- more work for the executive functions! Amazingly, we can reconstruct quite a lot together in just a minute or two. It is touching to watch a child’s face brighten when an idea or character that she introduced is recalled by another child.

DRAMA is part of life. Our brains are hard-wired for survival, and we tend to be drawn towards trouble spots and conflict areas. Yet we can also seek out creativity and kindness, thus carving new neural pathways. Drama therapy guides children to approach challenging issues in a playful, proactive way that nourishes body, mind and spirit.

For more on Drama Therapy, please see following articles:
Drama Rules: Gaining Social Competence through Intrinsic Motivation
Drama Therapy: How it Works
For more on neuroscience, scroll through the many articles in the Family Compass archives.