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How Theatre Education Can Help Engage Students with Disabilities

A group of students with disabilities learning about theatre

The rallying cry in hashtag form, #BetterTogether, gets tossed around all over social media. We feel good about the idea of inclusivity and bridging gaps among our differences – but do we really know what actions we’re taking in real life to make this goal a reality?

We talked to Kirsti Lewis of People Like Us (PLU), to learn how their program is making a difference and to share some easy-to-follow steps to make inclusivity a reality for your theatre program.

The Inspiration for People Like Us

Old-school wisdom says, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and for PLU, a nonprofit devoted to developing an arts-based curriculum to address the needs of students of all abilities, that’s exactly how they tackle their mission. Their team is made up of educators, therapists, advocates, and performers with disabilities working together to give students the chance to thrive.

“Too often, society underestimates and undermines people with disabilities,” says Kirsti Lewis, Founder and Executive Director of PLU. “Honestly, I did, too, until my sister Emma, born with Down syndrome, performed in her first theatre production and showed me exactly what she’s capable of,” an experience that helped Kirsti realize her life’s mission.

Building an Inclusive Theatre Curriculum

Kirsti and her team of professionals shared that if they could offer theatre teachers just one piece of advice, it would be to focus on scaffolding lesson plans and activities. Go for the “just-right challenge” – not too difficult or too simple. The goal of any lesson, rehearsal, audition, etc., is for each student to engage to the best of their ability and with the most independence possible – a vital element for student growth.

A student acting during a lesson at People Like Us
Theatre Lessons at People Like Us – Photo by BlantonCreative.

All students learn differently, so an easy way to make your curriculum more inclusive is to provide options. For example:

  • Offer an audio track ahead of time so students can listen to the inflection of their lines (auditory learners).
  • Play an audio track while students act out or pantomime a scene (nonverbal students).
  • Print out photos of scene progression and create a storyboard to better understand the sequence of events (visual learners).

And above all, emphasize process over product. Hold students and children to a high standard, and expect the best from them, but focus on growing students’ skill sets rather than achieving a “perfect” product.

At PLU, they’ve found that often the best productions and performances come from creating an environment that fosters learning, celebrates stepping outside of our comfort zones (whether that results in success or a lesson learned), and meets the needs of each student so that they feel supported, yet free to make their own decisions.

Two Strategies to Support Students with Disabilities

We encourage you to visit People Like Us and take the time to explore the deep wealth of instruction, ideas, and inspiration you’ll find there. But to help you get started, here are a few quick suggestions on how to handle two important student issues:

1. Managing Disruptions (in classrooms, auditions, or rehearsals)

Use the Behavior ABCs to help identify the root of students’ behaviors. These steps can help instructors identify emotions and therefore learn to better mediate behaviors by addressing the underlying issue(s).

Two boys with roses during a theatre lesson
People Like Us Students – Photo by BlantonCreative.

However, disruptions may still occur even after working through these steps. Managing disruptions can often feel more daunting when teaching students with disabilities, because they may have difficulty communicating how they’re feeling verbally or why they responded to a situation with a certain behavior. Keep in mind that the most accessible emotions (i.e., anger, happiness, sadness), are not always the root emotion that the student is feeling.

Sometimes we have to dig deeper to find the true emotion. Something much more complex is often happening beneath the surface. For example, a student stomping their foot and storming off might look like anger. However, this behavior might just be the outward expression of the most accessible emotion for them. They might actually be feeling something more complex, such as jealousy, embarrassment, boredom, anxiety, guilt, etc. 

ABC Example

A = Antecedent—What happened right before the problematic behavior? 

  • Example: Student A performed a solo, everyone clapped, and an instructor told the performer, “Good job!” 

B = Behavior—What was the behavior?  Try to be totally objective and don’t label emotions.

  • For example, “Student B got angry” is not a clear, objective statement. However, “Student B watched Student A’s solo, threw papers on the ground, and ran out of the room” is a clear, objective statement. 

C = Consequence—What happened immediately after the behavior? (This can be positive or negative.) 

  • Positive consequence: The instructor followed Student B and asked if they would like to perform for everyone next. 

Did the student respond positively or negatively to this? A positive student reaction may indicate they were craving affirmation or attention from the instructor and their peers. How can you ensure that this student is getting the needed affirmation without disrupting class next time? A negative response from the student may indicate they were feeling nervous or anxious about performing in front of peers, which would explain running out of the room when their turn got closer. Consider ways to ease nerves or even suggest another way of participating like helping backstage instead of performing. 

  • Negative consequence: The instructor told Student B their behavior had resulted in losing their turn to perform. Again, observe the student’s reaction to better understand the motivation behind the initial behavior. 

2. Teaching Active Listening and Critical Thinking Skills

Improv activities or theatre games are great ways to enhance active listening and critical thinking. Players must listen to what is happening in the scene and think critically about different scenarios or outcomes that could happen next. These activities also emphasize creativity.

Another way to promote critical thinking skills is to offer students choice-making opportunities. When choices are constantly made for students, they learn helplessness and the ability to think critically is diminished.

Without opportunities to think and choose for themselves, students become accustomed to others thinking for them. To start, provide small choice-making opportunities and progressively offer more independence. This will help build confidence, decision-making abilities, and critical thinking skills in your students. 

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