Using drama therapy techniques to develop social and emotional skills

drama therapy

05 Apr 2012

A guide to the benefits of using drama therapy and how to introduce it in the classroom, by Elizabeth Smith

What is drama therapy?

Drama therapy is a very wide field and can take many different forms. Drama promotes positive awareness of self and others and, when applied in schools, it uses the natural creativity of young people to enhance their personal and social skills. Performance can facilitate creativity, imagination, learning, insight and growth through a range of techniques such as puppetry, masks, role play and improvisation, and may be used with individuals, pairs or groups of students to provide various benefits.

  • Students can discover their inner strengths and natural resources.
  • It provides opportunities for students to experiment with life situations and make mistakes fearlessly.
  • Individual strengths and potential are built upon.
  • It enables the rehearsal of social and life skills.
  • It supports young people in recognising emotions in others.
  • It builds self-confidence through experiencing success.

The techniques of drama therapy can be used across all key stages and are suitable for those with special needs, such as autistic spectrum disorders, because it supports them in identifying emotions in themselves and others, develops skills for functioning as part of a group, and improves peer interaction.

How does it work?

The students are given the opportunity to experience different feelings and emotions by acting out situations. They can experiment with these emotions by making them more or less intense and practice responses to situations by working with scripts, fairytales and myths or making up stories. The sessions can be tailored to a particular theme such as loss, friendship, family or identity, or they can be open, perhaps exploring a theme that emerges during the warm-up. Participants may use puppets and masks to explore their feelings from a ‘safe’ distance by projecting them on to something other than a person.

A possible structure for a group session

Those participating share how they are feeling. This can provide information about what issues need to be worked on and resistances that may inhibit the success and functioning of the group. Younger children can be supported by the use of emotions cards to articulate their feelings.

The warm-up activity loosens muscles and begins to engage imaginations. Ideally it will also initiate interaction between the group members. For example, in the first session, the name game would be ideal: the group members stand in a circle and take it in turn to announce themselves by stepping forward and striking a pose that reflects their personality.

For instance, Ashley might stomp forward, shake her fists and shout angrily ‘Ashley!’ The rest of the group must then copy Ashley’s movement and voice. The activity continues until each person has introduced themselves.

Here issues can be explored through the use of role play. At this stage this should be a fictional situation, perhaps a generic family conflict for teenagers or a fairytale in which the characters go through a crisis or challenge. Stories from newspapers can also be used with their endings removed, such as trials or royal visits. As trust and confidence builds in the group, an additional stage may be added to this structure where personal issues are acted out and explored. Some groups may never reach this stage, either due to time constraints or resistance from group members, and many children will benefit from fictional work alone so there is no need to move on to later stages.

The group should finish with a closure activity such as a game, a song or a review of the session.

Some useful resources in drama therapy

The prop bag

A prop bag or box containing items for carrying out the drama therapy exercises can be invaluable. You can pull out a prop to grab attention or make a point to be remembered. The students can use the prop bag during activities to increase their skills or it can be used to inspire creativity or as a starting point for improvisation.

Some suggestions for prop bag items:

  • hats: the simplest way to change a character; perhaps have a beanie, a baseball cap, a large floppy hat, a bowler and a beret
  • glasses: these could be a mixture of sunglasses and clear spectacles, and will enable the actors to get into character more easily
  • large squares of fabric can be used in various ways, e.g. as a flag or tablecloth or wrapped around the body to make a garment
  • a roll of aluminium foil can be moulded into jewellery or armour
  • a torch can be used for instant special effects as a spotlight, or in improvisation and role play.


These are particularly useful when working with younger children and can be used in a variety of ways. They can capture attention and can be used by the children to act out and discover solutions to problems. Try to have available a wide variety of puppets including witches, monsters, fairytale characters and human characters. Children can also create their own fantasy puppet using resources such as paper bags, socks, felt, coloured pens, buttons and beads or cr

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