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Kids With Learning Challenges Shine on Stage

How children with ADHD, dyslexia, and more thrive in the spotlight 

Harry Kimball

Senior Writer
Child Mind Institute

Katie, a Middle School student at the Stephen Gaynor School, was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was eight years old. She also has "language processing issues," as she describes them, and together these made her reserved. "I've always been a kind of shy person," she says. Except for one place: the stage. "The stage fright thing never really fazed me as it does other people," she continues. "If it's a bad day or a good day I can have a whole different world."

We hear it all the time: an actor or entertainer is rumored to be dyslexic, or have an ADHD diagnosis, or some other barrier to traditional or mainstream learning. Are people who struggle in the classroom naturally drawn to acting? And if they are, is it because theater is appealing to their strengths, or a way of coping with their deficits?

A Special Gift?

Gaynor drama teacher Kristen Plylar-Moore observes that while every student is different, she does see unusual dramatic abilities in children with different learning styles. "The children I work with seem to have access to a part of themselves that other students find more difficult," she said.

"Students who might be exceptionally good at learning in the very traditional way are very much in their heads," Plylar-Moore observes. "In some ways it can be very challenging for them to not just get in their heads but be in their bodies, their hearts, their feelings. The kids who have more challenges in learning in that more traditional way can, I think, sometimes have greater access to that part of themselves. The depths of their expression can seem greater."

And nurturing these strengths is especially valuable in children who have trouble with traditional approaches to learning, she notes. Their success performing carries over into other endeavors. "One of the reasons Gaynor values the arts so much," she says, "is because it really builds confidence which is crucial in the classroom." If children are too discouraged to try to succeed academically, "then that lack of confidence is a huge inhibition. That confidence creates an entryway for them to walk through."

For Katie, whose language processing issues effectively sidelined her in her mainstream elementary school, acting provided her a voice. "It helps me kind of speak up for myself," she says. "Nobody knew really what was going on with me, why I was getting bad grades...acting really helped me with that."

New Skills, New Successes

Maggie McBrien, the head of the performing arts program at the Churchill School in New York and director of high school theatrical productions, sees the program as offering a chance to excel to kids with more than the usual stable of challenges. "I have very high expectations for them, and the deal is, there is nothing about theater that should be a problem," she says. "They are going to operate at a mainstream level, and that is just what we're doing, in my mind."

What does she tell her students with learning differences? "You can do it at exactly the same level as any mainstream high school, and you can probably do it better, because you're more creative, you have more energy." And why do they shine on stage? "The stakes are too high."

Pat Sciortino, MS Special Ed., helps younger children with learning and attention issues develop social and emotional skills through improv. Sciortino notes that these kids get a great deal of attention and scrutiny for their weaknesses. "It's a hard life, because they're constantly being defined by that disability, instead of by their gifts," she says. Sciortino describes her kids as tending towards high verbal intelligence and creativity. "This is a way they get to play to their gifts, because they do have strengths."

Sciortino also claims that improv helps her students develop social skills they might be lacking and work on emotional regulation. For kids with ADHD and other developmental issues, she notes, the "give and take" of a dialog is a "new concept to them," but one that can be taught well within the bounds of semi-structured theater games.

A word from Katie. She said it isn't particularly "hard" to memorize her lines, but also not "easy."  "I've had some tricks," she goes on. "Sometimes I memorize a friend's line, and that will help me memorize my line, like a cue—she'll say this, and then I'll say this."

And that is oddly freeing for Katie, someone who admits difficulty making her "thoughts into words." On stage, "I have this whole other person made up for me, and I get to be competent and really quick."

Means to an End

Theater also shows up in more structured attempts to educate young people with disorders like ADHD that interfere with traditional learning. At Gaynor, Plylar-Moore harnesses drama to the curriculum to help students engage with material in a non-traditional way. "It's crucial to do cross-curricular work," she says, and "for kids who are able to find more success in doing artistic things it becomes imperative."

She works with students like Katie to craft dramatic narrativesfinding a beginning, a middle, and an endbased on subjects in other classes. "What drama can do is take that information and give them a functional use for it right now," Plylar-Moore stresses. "In order to tell the story they have to understand" the material, and it reinforces other styles of learning. "It gives them a hook into this material."

Whatever the purpose, drama seems to broaden horizons for these kids. "We did a play called Once on This Island," Katie says, "and I played the lead role, a girl called Ti Moune." She felt in control, and thrilled. "Whatever I did the play would take a turn, and I got to play this character that was a little on the wild side." It was a chance to step outside herself. "I'm not very rebellious, but my character was."

McBrien is results oriented. She describes one student actor. "She's got a lot of different stuff on the table. And when she comes to me, it's like you wouldn't even know. She can memorize the text...she works her butt off, she understands nuance in a way that a lot of kids might not. She's a mystery." No matter. When McBrien's kids pull off a play, "we did exactly what any other school can do."

Published: March 4, 2014.

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