Teens on the Tenth: Learning through Theater

Categories: Resources

Don’t you love when things fall into place or just click? I felt that way today when my bloggy friend Vanessa (and Teens on the Tenth counterpart) suggested using this month’s Teens on the Tenth to discuss the use of theater curriculum. It’s like she read my little special ed teacher mind. I absolutely love using theater to work on social skills, communication, and emotional development and am always eager for new ideas and approaches!

A few months ago, I shared my presentation about using drama games for social/emotional learning.  I received a small grant last year from the Chicago Foundation for Education that gave me the opportunity to create an entire unit to work on the skills needed to be a good friend with one of the staff from the Chicago Children’s Theater’s Red Kite Project (a subset that is designed to involve children with autism in the arts). Check out the post to learn more but it was freaken amazing.

So Vanessa has successfully utilized drama into her classroom too! Here is what Vanessa said about the way she uses theater in her classroom:

Last year, my friend (check out her blog! @ Kimberlystrafford.com) and I used an amazing curriculum she developed to write a play based on a piece of fiction work. We worked with my high school class and another, with students in an 8:1:1 setting ranging in age from 16-21, and wrote and performed our own “shifted” version of Little Red Riding Hood. It was such a great experience for me as a teacher because I was able to be part of an experience with my students that was one of a kind, and I walked away learning new skills that I can take along with me to my classroom everyday. Through collaborating to write a play and perform it together, I watched my class develop so many new skills—one (and one, which in my opinion is crucial!) that I was astounded by was the increase in my students ability to work with and empathize with each other. I watched them correct each other’s lines, tell each other “it’s ok” when struggling, and work together to create something they were proud of.


Sounds so awesome, right!? My classroom has never done a full blown performance like this but Vanessa’s encouraging story is really inspiring me too! Her friend, Kimberly’s blog is great! It was so fun to read about her experiences creating these theater units. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

This week we are introducing Conflict.  Ms. Muffy had the great idea of shifting the story in a way that will allude to the fact that the wolf has autism.  This subtle point will add an element of self advocacy to the piece that neither myself or Ms. Muffy could put in ourselves.  I want to create a room of support so this weeks Whip Around will be their names and for them to demonstrate something that is easy for them to do, and something that is hard.  I am hoping this simple activity will give them a chance to express themselves.

I am creating this curriculum one week at a time.  I want to be able to look at every week and ask myself, “ok-what do they need now?”.  Last week, we focused on vocal ladders.  I used the concept of different pitches to create different characters.  And different characters, of course, have different points of view.  And different points of view can lead to the conflict in the story.  See how I can get nervous?  My curriculum is kind of like our play– it’s writing itself.  I just need to shut up and let it spin.

The teachers are excited, the kids are excited.  And I come in every week to new developments.  Last week for example, they managed to create sound effects and an original song.  That was on top of costumes and set pieces. They reviewed my stage directions and added some of their own.  One student also volunteered to narrate. Narration was usually something I did by myself  but now I’m sharing the spotlight. (sigh)

The energy in the room is contagious.  Everyone from teachers, to PARAs to students can’t wait to  and show  what they have been doing all week.  I know we have all gotten to this place together, but sometimes I feel like I just taught them how to fish and they are setting up the banquet.  It’s an amazing feeling – it’s pride and amazement wrapped up in a package of “they don’t need me anymore”.

Vanessa now works with students who are less verbal and lower functioning. So she is wondering how to incorporate these types of activities and units into her classroom now. Any ideas?

My web searching led to a few cool resources I want to share. The Applied Theatre Center put together a pdf of Autism Resources Online.

This blog: SENSE Theatre sounds like they are doing some really cool projects.  SENSE Theatre is a unique theatrical intervention research program designed to improve the social and emotional functioning of children with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders.

“Theater is transforming for anyone, regardless of their abilities,” Corbett said. “But for children with autism, it’s a vehicle for them to express themselves and be social with other typically developing children.”

SENSE parent Becky Leung has seen her son, Eric, make major strides in his social skills and coping with conflict.

“He’s very rigid, everything has to stick to a schedule or he gets upset,” Leung said. “But in theatre, not everything is routine. There’s changes and he’s doing better with that.”

A big improvement in her son came on the night costumes were handed out. Eric, a munchkin in the production, was handed his green ensemble and, to his mother’s surprise, didn’t have an outburst about the change in wardrobe.

“He normally will only wear blue and white, his school uniform colors,” Leung said. “Wearing all black and now the bright green without a fit is a big step for him.”

Brian Haney’s podcast talks about a recent theater performance of autistic and neurotypical adults. Dr. Bluestein saw the results of Brian Haney’s work with the group through the processes of creating, rehearsing, and performing a script.

Love me some amazon. I found a few resources that looked good! This book – Acting Antics – provides a step-by-step program that provides the full set of tools for developing social understanding in children with autism through the use of drama.

Teaching Aspergers’ Students Social Skills Through Acting is another resource that teaches strategies and theory for developing acting units that double as social skills groups.

Acting for Kids on the Autistic Spectrum provides instruction on how to use acting as effective and fun therapy for children and teens with autism.

 So take home point: it seems like this autism + theater trend is starting to catch one. Questions for you: have you tried this approach? Does it work? And how can you adapt this for your students who are lower functioning/less verbal?


  1. awesome post and great tales what are kimberly’s and Vanessa’s links would love to learn more and probably follow them too

  2. I teach in a junior high program and I combine with the art teacher to create some similar theater units. With our students who are nonverbal, they participate through using visuals, holding signs, or nonspeaking roles in the play. We also work on imitating facial expression to express emotions with these students.

  3. Kimberly’s blog is linked on there under Vanessa’s quotes and Vanessa does not have a blog but helps me out with Teens on the Tenth! (She is awesome! 🙂 )

  4. Love this! Thanks for sharing! I want to try this with my high school class.


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