Pupils acting out? Let them

1st February 2013 at 00:00
Drama is a great way to channel negative behaviour in a more positive direction, says Lynne Harrison

At the age of 7 Sam was a bully. Big and arrogant with it, he took pleasure in pushing other children around at his junior school. Constantly angry, he would hit out randomly and would rarely engage in group activities.

Sam was disruptive and proving difficult to teach. Disciplinary sanctions made no difference. His mother, a single parent, was in despair.

As head of English and drama I observed Sam's behaviour closely. I concluded that he needed to do something that would win him praise not criticism for his behaviour. The answer was drama.

He was a reluctant actor at first. But knowing his penchant for fighting, I cast him in a leading role as a soldier who took part in sword fights and brawls, and he played the character with gusto. He was venting his aggression but in a controlled and creative way. He enjoyed it so much that I was able to use him to coach other children in the art of stage violence.

Sam proved to be a talented and hard-working young actor. His performance in the play was excellent and his mother was astounded.

His success boosted his confidence and gave him kudos with other children. He no longer had to bully them to get a reaction. And gradually his attitude to other work also changed: he was motivated, hungry to learn and gaining good marks.

Sam's case is at the more extreme end of the spectrum. Drama can be used with bullies but it can also change the behaviour of almost any child. Too many schools consider the annual play to be almost an afterthought, something foisted on the teacher who draws the short straw.

Drama can teach children a wide range of skills that will stay with them for life. It boosts self-esteem, improves reading ability and encourages teamwork. It helps children to express opinions and teaches them about communication, role play and different kinds of language. Acting also gives pupils the confidence to speak and perform in public, the lack of which hampers the lives and careers of many adults.

At the primary where I was deputy head, we had children taking assemblies, showing parents around on open days, talking to visitors and performing plays and concerts for the community.

There are always the gifted who are both academically blessed and talented actors. But drama can also bring out skills in those whose struggle with other subjects. I have seen many non-academic children excel at drama and later watched them being high-fived in the playground.

Productions also give pupils the chance to develop other skills such as scriptwriting, and scenery and costume design. It is a chance to show individual flair while being part of a team.

However, for drama to change behaviour, it has to be done properly and creatively; it has to excite. Most children know if something is cheesy. They understand the difference between a derivative play and one that entertains. Drama should surprise, even shock. And the children need to believe in it for them to be motivated.

One of my most successful drama projects was for a special Film Night. Year 6 children were taught basic storyboarding and camera skills. We then wrote a series of mini-scripts, which the pupils acted out and filmed. I gave the children considerable licence with their subjects and encouraged them to look for unusual subjects and locations. The results were extraordinary.

We did a series of short films based around the idea: "If Carlsberg did Ofsted inspections ..." One of them included an enormous, chaotic food fight, as the (real) teacher sat reading Vogue magazine, oblivious to what was going on, even when hit in the face with a well-aimed trifle.

The film had to be planned meticulously and captured in just one take. The children rose to the challenge and had tremendous fun, although the science room needed repainting afterwards. The Ofsted inspector from Carlsberg of course rated the lesson as "outstanding".

The children's work was later shown to delighted parents on a giant screen at the Film Night, complete with red carpet and "Oscars".

It is a shame that many schools do little or no drama and that it is often withdrawn to "punish" misbehaviour. That is missing the point. Drama is the one lesson that can tackle that behaviour.

Just ask Sam. He went on to win a place at one of West London's top schools. Five years later he returned to the school - now a strapping six-footer - lifted me into the air with a big hug and thanked me for turning his life around. It was over-generous praise but Sam's story is proof of the power of drama to change children's lives.

Lynne Harrison is a teacher in South West London.

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