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Theatre in education and the social and emotional development of young people

Theatre in education: Image shows child looking through theatre curtains

Kevin & Perry (Enfield, Burke), Lauren Cooper (Catherine Tate), Vicky Pollard (Matt Lucas), any teacher would dread finding any one of these names on their register. TV, film and literature have provided us with some classic teenage archetypes. All of these characters share similar traits; over reactions, a lack of rationality and heaps of attitude. Young people are often told that their school years are the best years of their lives, however, they can also be the most difficult. It could be argued that these are truly our formative years, where we start to make decisions that will determine our profession, sexuality and social groups. Just to make things interesting, it is during this time that the human body transitions from child to adult, bringing with it a variety of hormonal changes. On top of an increased volume of school work and the ever-watching eye of social media, it’s no surprise that young people may appear to exhibit the occasional over reaction or mood swing.

All of these changes are of course necessary in establishing a strong sense of identity, reaching an emotional maturity and eventually achieving a sense of near to complete autonomy, but where to start? As children, we are guided and supported by parents and teachers, who often impart lessons of morality and help to instil the figurative moral compass. However, the teenage years are also synonymous with rebellion, moving away from a sense of group thinking and forging your own way. Within this there is often a rejection of the conventional ways of learning; parents and teachers can be seen as enforcers of systems that youths perceive to oppress them. How then, can we ensure, that young people are still getting the social education that they need? Theatre in education has proven to be a powerful and effective mode of communication for engaging young people.

It can be difficult, even in adulthood, to put oneself in another person’s shoes, particularly if that person’s life experience is completely departed from our own. Theatre in education uses entertainment to engage young people; the actors often present likeable, relatable characters to replicate situations that the teen audience may find themselves in. Hot topics include: drink drug awareness, sexual health, road safety and anti-bullying. The common place format is to watch a show based on the topic and then participate in a follow- up workshop. Think about your favourite film or TV programme; how did you feel when the main character achieved their goal? Elated? Pleased? What about when the antagonist got their comeuppance? Satisfied? Relieved? As viewers, we go on this rollercoaster journey because of an emotional investment in the characters which derives from a developed sense of empathy. In “The development of Empathy: How, when and why” by Nicole M. McDonald & Daniel S. Messinger it is stated that “…empathy is thought to be an important precursor to and motivator for prosocial, or helping behaviour…” laying the groundwork for the attainment of social competence. Theatre in education both utilises and develops this sense of empathy within young people to elicit a connection between the audience and the characters in the story. More often than not, viewers get the opportunity to ask the characters follow-up questions or “hot seat” them; asking them why they made the decisions they did and how they felt about it.

This non-intrusive method of communicating with young people is an effective way to ensure they get the information they need. Whilst watching the performance individuals may relate to a character, having experienced something directly, or helping a friend through something similar. The young people can watch, listen and ask questions if they wish. They can look at potential situations they may face from an outside perspective and be presented with possible outcomes or solutions without having to admit to having the problem or encounter. In some cases, young people are even given the chance to role play the situation and receive feedback from their peers in a safe environment. With the focus on the fictional characters, youths are liberated from consequences and are free to ask questions.

I recently delivered a series of S.E.N.D awareness workshops to young people in the Cheshire area, wherein we used C-Live, a virtual-reality classroom operating in real time. The avatars spoke directly to the children about their manifestations of autism and dyslexia. Countless times children would raise their hands and ask if they could speak openly with the class (virtual and physical) about themselves and their diagnosis. There are many instances I could cite here, but one particularly interesting case to note was a young man, who had a variety of co-existing conditions. He became particularly attached to one of our avatars and after hearing his testimony, he decided to tell the group about each one of his conditions. He proceeded to recount a time that he entered a coma after one of his episodes. You could physically see the understanding spreading around the classroom, an understanding that would not have been achieved if that young man had not felt that emotional connection with that character.

For years, the finger has been firmly pointed at the entertainment industry for the influence that it can have on young people; from styles of music, to the clothes celebrities wear. During the formative teenage years, young people look to entertainment, celebrities and social media, for guidance; they use these sources to inform their physical image, as well as for the formation of their opinions which in turn influence how they will act in social situations. Theatre in education harnesses this learning. Combining the engagement of the entertainment world and vital lessons of morality to guide young people. Theatre in education gives young people the tools to respond to the new and unfamiliar situations pubescence presents and aids in their transition from child to adult.

Natalie Preece is one of Connect’s Simulaton Specialists. She has a degree in Contemporary Theatre and Performance and has over 10 years experience working with young people and delivering educational workshops across the UK and overseas.

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