Drama Therapy: How It Works

byMecca Burns, RDT-BCT

Family Compass offers Drama Therapy for small groups of children on Monday afternoons during the school year. Most children who come to Family Compass for Drama Therapy have experienced challenges in the interpersonal arena. The pleasure and mastery they achieve in their drama group can heal past negative experiences and provide a positive outlook for the future. Once they get to know us and what’s involved, children seem to relax and open up. They learn to anticipate an environment where their most cherished ideas, stories and characters will come to life, with the help of the therapist and the group. As the developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky said, “In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself”

In new groups, or with younger children, theatre games and story ideas are often introduced by the drama therapist. We dramatize material drawn from the children’s imaginations, familiar stories, and real life events. Structure and behavioral boundaries provide the children with a sense of safety and allows for creative spontaneity.

As time progresses, the children inevitably create their own characters and adventures. Sometimes a story frame evolves over months, deepening characters and building layers of complexity in the plot. Children receive ample practice with communication and processing abilities as they usually develop a very high motivation to participate and contribute.

When we lead drama therapy groups at Family Compass, we focus specifically onstrengthening social competence. While each child has a unique set of goals, we find that most of our families share a desire to improve their children’s interpersonal and friendship skills. There are several key ingredients that help develop social competence, and the drama therapy sessions offer a chance to practice them all simultaneously, as in real life.

Drama therapy helps with emotional expression and regulation because it provides an exciting, emotionally charged atmosphere, while requiring children to work cooperatively with each other. For example, a plot may require the kids to quietly and carefully sneak up on a sleeping giant without waking him. If they don’t do it together, it won’t work! They must modulate their affect if they want to master the task.

Many parents are concerned about their child’s nonverbal communication andunderstanding of social cues. There are frequent opportunities in every session for a child to practice picking up nonverbal cues. For example, the drama therapists help group members determine whether a playmate is being playful or serious, whether they are being invited and encouraged to continue what they are doing, or whether the other child is expressing displeasure and wanting them to stop. In addition, the drama therapist may draw the child’s attention to the nonverbal cues that a play partner is expressing, (e.g., facial expression, vocal inflection, moving towards or away from them). The children also give each other much valuable feedback, both verbal and nonverbal.

Creating a story in drama therapy also provides abundant opportunities to practice in-context thinking and social pragmatics. The challenge for each child is to integrate new information into a familiar context. For instance, we might start with a well-know fairy tale and come up with a new ending, or we might create a new episode for a favorite TV show like Spongebob. In the “Where Game”, one child may step out of action, while others create an environment, (restaurant, castle, spaceship, doctor’s office) and assume the roles of the inhabitants. When the child comes back in, s/he has to observe how people are interacting in this environment to figure out where they are, and then join in — appropriately.

With some children, there is a cognitive understanding of social skills but the difficulty is withexecutive function, which involves interpreting information and choosing appropriate responses. In a dramatic play situation, children receive support in translating abstract concepts into concrete actions. They play out scenarios that vividly demonstrate the reasons behind social rules.

In every group, a fundamental principle is social reciprocity. A child may come in with a passion to enact something s/he has been looking forward to all week. S/he may then encounter another child who is equally enthusiastic about something completely different, and we will find a way to incorporate all of it into the session. The group members learn to stand up for their own ideas, and respect other people’s ideas. The drama activities provide a powerful incentive for children to manage conflict productively, and work together cooperatively. Every child contributes ideas into the mix, and then sees the ideas woven together into a coherent narrative.

For us as drama therapists, it is very rewarding to catch a glimpse into each child’s soul. We look forward to continuing our groups from last year and also beginning some new groups for the 2009-10 school year.

For more information about our Drama Therapy groups, please contact Mecca Burns, RDT-BCT at 434/973-2387