Special education - Show stoppers

5th December 2008 at 00:00
Drama and multi-sensory approaches to learning can bring out the best in pupils who find communication challenging, says Susannah Kirkman

Music, props and visual images are an essential part of drama at Fullerton House School near Doncaster. Drama is closely meshed with art and music at the school, which caters for pupils with autism and moderate to severe learning difficulties, whether it's the Christmas play or a production linked to literacy week.

"Our pupils find communication hard; some are non-verbal and all really benefit from multi-sensory methods," says Kim Lang, assistant head and the teacher responsible for drama and the creative arts.

Fullerton House is one of the few special schools to achieve Artsmark Gold, the top award in an Arts Council scheme to recognise excellent arts provision in schools.

The secret of its success is planning differentiated activities, according to Kim. "Some pupils will respond more to the visual, some to music; others will gain from the tactile experience of making props."

For last year's production of The Snowman, some pupils created a snowy backdrop using sponge painting in different shades of grey and white, while others made snowman models out of Mod Roc, a fabric impregnated with plaster that hardens when it's mixed with water. Those who enjoy music were able to help with musical effects and join in the songs.

Music can be key in discussing characters and emotions with more able pupils. "We might ask: `How can we tell from the music that Scrooge is grumpy or sad?' says Kim, who is planning a production of A Christmas Carol.

The haunting strains of the Harry Potter film theme, for example, were particularly effective in a production based on the J.K. Rowling stories, the focus of a recent literacy week. The sense of mystery was enhanced by mist billowing from a dry ice machine.

People with autism find any change in routine hard to handle, which is a potential pitfall for drama productions. Linking drama closely to the English curriculum is essential because it gives pupils the chance to become familiar with the plot and discuss the characters before they are involved in a performance.

Performing in public is daunting for these pupils, so the story is not told solely through the actors. A PowerPoint presentation of words, images and picture symbols projected on to a huge screen provides the narrative, although pupils may sometimes represent key characters by dressing up in costume, a scarf and glasses for Harry Potter or a nightcap and striped nightshirt for Scrooge.

Simple props and costumes are important. In drama lessons, face paint and costumes may be used to convey different characters and moods.

Despite the challenges, Kim is convinced that drama is valuable for the pupils. "It teaches them to work together and it raises their self- esteem," she says. "But above all, we want to give them the rich curriculum they are entitled to."

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