Drama at all levels, from the nursery to the National Theatre, explores why people think and behave as they do. It is fundamental to understanding other people and one's place in society.
It is also a statutory curriculum requirement for all children, both as a subject in its own right, with a crucial link to text, and as a valuable cross-curricular tool for supporting other subjects. The three key aspects of drama are: improvisation and working in role; scripting and performing plays and stories; and responding to and evaluating performance.
Classroom drama puts children on the inside of an experience. It engages their imagination by developing a space where anything can happen. Through drama, a child can be supported to explore symbolic ways of being: through movement, touch, voice, hearing and vision.
Some children with special needs will easily engage in drama, but others find make-believe play hard. They may not have the advanced symbolic and language skills that support imaginary thinking or the social skills to collaborate. If we wait for children to develop these skills they may never be ready to enjoy drama, so an approach that emphasises learning through doing is needed.
CHILDREN WITH AUTISM
Drama addresses the core difficulties of children on the autistic spectrum by offering a narrative that can lead to more coherent social understanding.
Autism is associated with: a lack of imaginative play; difficulty in anticipating, recognising or recalling patterns and sequences in life; indifference to or intolerance of other people; inappropriate social behaviour; and difficulties with communication. This undermines children's ability to make sense of their emotional states, and those of others.
Careful use of melodrama, which raises awareness of the mental states of others, is helpful. An example we have observed is a dramatisation such as The Three Little Pigs, with a teacher in the role of Mrs Pig, who is fed up with housework. She is then delighted as each child in turn helps with a chore by selecting an item from a number of photographs, before finding the corresponding prop and improvising the activity.
URGE TO PLAY
Children with learning difficulties have problems with fundamental social and cognitive skills. They may be unable to imitate actions, sounds, or facial expressions. But drama can arouse a fundamental urge to play - which is the basis for communication. Appealing props, costumes, scenery or sound effects provide riveting opportunities for developing joint attention and a shared meaning with others.
For these children, drama needs to start with participation in a ritual and exploration of sensory experiences. They are not required to imagine something different from the here and now: rather, the here and now is transformed to stimulate their attention.
Drama should give them opportunities to take turns, make eye contact, use objects in new ways and relate to others in role. They will need to replay the activity on several occasions before they begin to respond.
For example, in a dramatisation of Macbeth, pupils with profound disabilities can make the decision either to murder King Duncan or treat him as an honoured guest. This is represented as a choice between a dagger and a golden goblet. They are then committed to a group that determines what they do in the murder scene. By revisiting the choice when the lesson is repeated, they gradually learn about the consequences of their actions.
TAKING THE LEAD
The overall progression in drama is from attention, response and participation in structured activities to more imaginative involvement in child-led scenarios.
Socially challenged children and those at early stages of learning will benefit from activities that require co-operation, within which they can learn to make choices. As children become more confident they can try open-ended activities requiring a practical resolution (perhaps to a surprise outcome). They may then go on to work that involves complex problem-solving and social demands.
Development in drama is broadly aligned with language level and associated play abilities.
BUILDING THE DRAMA
Inclusive drama should involve everyone - staff and pupils - with tasks presented boldly and simply. Clarity is essential: working from real objects and moving into more abstract ideas.
Take time to build up the drama in small steps, cross-checking that everyone understands. Make it explicit by talking the children through how the make-believe is constructed: "When I put on this cloak, I'll be pretending to be a king." Use visual elements, contrasts in pace and tension, and a mixture of discussion and activity to keep children focused.
Children will feel more commitment to activities they have ownership of, so harness their ideas and initiatives, however small, if necessary interpreting them in a way that is compatible with the developing group experience.
As far as possible, children's ideas should be contained without breaking the fiction or prolonging an improvisation. Afterwards, step out of role and discuss what happened, making links to real life.
Drama can be a challenging way of teaching, especially with unpredictable and idiosyncratic children, as it thrives on negotiation and risk. But it is also wonderfully rewarding and enjoyable - and harnesses the fundamental truth that children learn through play.
Speaking, Listening, Learning: working with children who have special educational needs (DfES 1187-2005 CDI) is available from the Department for Education and Skills order line (0845 60 222 60). It highlights drama strategies that benefit all children. Sample lessons illustrate ways of including children with a range of needs, and a series of posters present practical tips and frameworks.
Melanie Peter is senior lecturer in early childhood studies at Anglia Polytechnic University.
Nicola Grove is senior lecturer in the department of language and communication science at City University.