In a world where too many school systems undervalue the arts, beacons of hope and success show us how the arts can be presented. These schools realize the transformational power of bringing creativity into the curriculum, especially for children with learning differences, atypical development or disabilities. Theater, in particular, presents opportunities for drawing out the best in every student. These benefits extend well beyond the stage, past the classroom and into lifelong learning.
Baltimore Lab School founder Sally L. Smith was a trailblazer who passionately promoted the arts as a gateway for teaching exceptional learners. “Sally believed that the arts motivate, capture excitement, build self-confidence and demand the involvement of students in the learning process,” says Laura Parkhurst, head of Arts and Academic Clubs and mentor program facilitator at the Baltimore Lab School. “Approximately 40% to 50% of our students in grades 1 to 12 take performing arts classes, and 100% of our first through sixth grade students are enrolled in Academic Club classes, which are immersive, experiential and fully arts-integrated social studies classes that frequently involve students in theater-based learning activities.”
Sean Elias, performing arts department chair and theater coordinator at Jemicy Upper School, estimates that 35% to 40% of Jemicy’s students are involved in the theater program, either in acting or in a technical capacity. “There is something about the arts that allows kids to engage with the material and their own discovery of self in a way that is freeing,” says Elias.
Building Trust and Finding a Voice
Some students are averse to try drama in the same way some adults loathe public speaking. “Students who have diverse learning needs are no different from the general population—some are excited about being involved in theater and others are terrified,” says Michelle Argent, drama teacher and Academic Club leader at the Baltimore Lab School. “There’s an amazing opportunity to build trust.”
Marianne Gazzola Angelella, also a drama teacher and Academic Club leader at Baltimore Lab School, has seen many students who need coaxing at first, but says that “the classroom culture of accommodations, acceptance, encouragement, collaboration, relaxation and exploration create a safe space for students to find their voice.”
One student’s discovery of voice led to a highlight of Argent’s teaching career. This student began the year terrified to get up in front of her peers or an audience. Making eye contact with other students was overwhelming, and drama exercises brought on such anxiety that she’d need to take a break to calm down. As the year progressed, the student felt increasingly relaxed and accepted.
Later, at a post-performance cast party, she stood up before the class to say she didn’t want it to end. “We’re not just an ensemble,” she said. “We’re a kind of family.”
Sean Elias has celebrated many similar successes. “We had a student who was almost mute when theater class began, later starred in a musical and now realizes the love (for) fine arts,” says Elias.
“Theater gave (the student) the confidence to say, ‘I never had this voice before. I got this from theater, but I want to use it in fine arts.’ Another student was a brilliant stage manager, and he said, ‘With the skills and confidence I have now, I can pursue my passion for engineering.’ Our goal is not to train the next Broadway star, but to create a better human and better learner.”
Taking Risks and Growing Stronger Together Through Drama
Collaboration is a strong reason why drama offers opportunities for growth, especially for students who struggle with self-esteem, self-expression or social-emotional skills. “Every part of theater is collaborative, regardless of whether you are onstage or behind the scenes,” says Argent. “To succeed, students must listen to each other, be willing to share their own opinions, respect differences and support each other.”
Linda Jacobs, executive director of The Harbour School, explains that students experience peer review and responsibility when working together, while simultaneously building friendships and creating support groups. “Drama is a lot like life, except you have better preparation,” she says. “These experiences teach our kids about expectations and performance standards in jobs and in life. Our students also work on their improvisation skills. Kids on the spectrum struggle with improvisation in life, so this is good training.”
Where Differentiation Flows Naturally
Drama is suited to help students with disabilities bloom and thrive. “When teaching students who are neurodiverse, one size does not fit all,” says Argent. “Theater is innately multisensory and experiential. It naturally lends itself to scaffolding and differentiation, which are key elements in special education. In drama class, the primary materials are the body, voice, imagination and heart. The more fluid personalized experience allows students to have small successes almost immediately.”
“All educational information is received through sensory input,” notes Elias. The brain has a filter. Without it, we would be on constant sensory overload—as is the case with autism, for example. Our brains work to limit response to the sensory world. “The arts bypass the filter that says information is uninteresting. It grabs information from this filter,” he continues. “Movement, music and voice are instantly curious and engaging. That is particularly valuable for learners with dyslexia or ADHD.”
Carrying the Benefits to Other Classes
Parkhurst notes that the performing arts “capitalize on students’ creative strengths and allow them to learn and practice communication skills, perspective taking, concepts of time and space and myriad other competencies.”
The positive effects have been proven time and again. “Drama students display improved reading comprehension, verbal and nonverbal communication skills and higher levels of empathy and tolerance toward others,” says Argent.
Elias further explains that “theatrical methods teach self-control, discipline and cognitive flexibility. The same tools we are training and developing are also needed for learning history, science, math and technology.”
When students help write scripts, it gives them ownership and investment in the material. “Students who have reading challenges are successful in building reading skills, line memorization and combining all the aspects of creating a performance because they imagined and wrote the dialogue,” says Angelella. “This process also reinforces the story elements and character development they learn in ELA classes.”
Theater arts can also aid school attendance. “Many students who are considered to be at high risk for dropping out of high school cite drama and other arts classes as their motivation for staying in school,” notes Argent.
Removing the Fear of Failure
Perhaps the most compelling reason for encouraging dramatic arts in education is its remarkable gift for unlocking potential. Elias sums it up: “With other academic subjects, there is a constant pressure of right and wrong. The arts are not about being right. In the population that we serve, so many come from an environment where they feel like they have failed or there is something wrong with them, and the arts allow for that to go away. There is a free entry to wild exploration. Remove that sense of fear and failure. Make it about a journey that the kids want to engage in, for something that betters them. Foster that entry point, and from there, anything is possible.”
Support Your Child’s Interest in Drama and the Arts
Marianne Gazzola Angelella of the Baltimore Lab School suggests trying improvisation games, exercises, classes, camps and community theater opportunities. She notes that her students have participated in Baltimore Center Stage, Everyman Theatre, Spotlighters Theatre’s Young Actors Academy, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Charm City Players Musical Theatre Camp and Imagination Stage. Baltimore Shakespeare Factory and Children’s Playhouse of Maryland also offer programs.
Allow your children to watch performances and plays. The thrill of the stage is tangible.