I want you backstage, right here!” Raji Sringarajan calls out in a firm voice. The five middle school girls make their way to the front of the classroom, which seems to be the designated backstage. “Now, let’s begin.” Srirangan points to the large yellow posters, which have the words of the script displayed in big bold type. Sabrina, the narrator steps out and faces the audience and announces in a soft hesitant voice, “Funny Bone Plays Presents, ‘Shut the Door.’” After she finishes, Sabrina turns her head to look at Sringarajan, who gives her an encouraging nod. Sabrina steps back and the rehearsal commences.

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This is anything but your typical middle school theater program. The play is part of a special curriculum designed by Sringarajan, using drama and role-play to develop pragmatic skills for students at AchieveKids, a Bay Area school for “children, adolescents and young adults with complex developmental and emotional disabilities.” Sringarajan is a Speech and Language Pathologist and has been working with special-needs students since 1995.

According to Sringarajan, the key is to help students learn to communicate as a means of coping with their disabilities. “The ultimate goal is to prevent behavioral breakdown and to learn to work together in structured groups,” she explains. At the end of the session, Connie, one of the actors in the play, bounds forward and then stops to ask, “Can I give you a hug?” Srirangan smiles and nods and the hug is full and tight. Affection abounds in the classroom.

The concept of using role-play as a therapeutic device has existed since the early twentieth century. In 1910, a young physician in Vienna, Jacob L. Moreno, became intrigued with creative and spontaneous expressions as an assuasive technique. Through dramatic improvisation he helped actors reflect on the way they were playing out their roles on stage, and in real life. In 1925, he consolidated his findings and formulated the strategy of psychodrama, which he used to help psychiatric patients. He later applied the same therapy techniques to group situations and came up with the twin term, sociodrama, to assess and diagnose social problems. No matter what the technique employed, according to a paper in the Journal of Heart Centered Therapies authored by Amy Casey, “when an individual acts out particular roles or incidents within a group, he or she will explore unconscious patterns, uncomfortable emotions, deep conflicts, and meaningful life themes in the safety of the therapeutic group.”

Two of the most critical advantages to role-play are assessment and diagnosis. In her classroom, Srirangan integrates self-assessment into her curriculum. Thus, at the end of the rehearsal, she has all the actors seated and queries them on their performance, “How did you ladies do today?” Moving through the room, she hones in on some key words that the girls throw back at her: emphasis, focus, and clear speech.

Integrating drama as a developmental tool, Sringarajan and AchieveKids, the school, have seen remarkable success. Take the case of Jordan Madeiro. He came to AchieveKids with numerous issues, having been burdened with labels such as Autism, ADHD, OCD. He was also legally blind. “He would peel the paint of the doorjamb, every night, every single night,” says his mother Tammy Madeiro. Then last year, Jordie, as he is affectionately addressed, became a star. In Sringarajan’s class, he was encouraged to write his own script. He sat on a chair in front of the classroom and recited to a rapping rhythm, “Once upon a time, as a queen sewed, a drop of blood fell on the snow…” At the end of his performance a large smile spread on his face and he accepted the accolades with a heartfelt, “Yeah!”

Psychiatrist Adam Blantner, describes the difference between psychodrama and drama therapy thus: “Psychodrama generally works with the protagonist in a role as himself, in various situations. Drama therapists often work with patients in a more “distanced” role, a role not of the individual in his actual life situation. However, often this is done for patients who aren’t ready to work with the more intense context of self-reflection.” Sringarajan blurs that delineation in her classroom. Employing both strategies, she is acutely focused on “developing pragmatic skills for students.” In other words, the practical skills that comes hand in hand with self-awareness and self-reliance.

Blantner pinpoints self-awareness as part of “problem solving and communications.” Self-awareness, he further explains, helps in the overall understanding of others. Understanding others is crucial to being socially relevant. That, to me, is such an overwhelming truth that I wonder why more people haven’t taken to the stage to deal with the widely prevalent malady of depression, or even mid-life crisis?

Self-reliance is the motto of AchieveKids and the ability to communicate becomes a pivot for special-needs students. Tulin Melton, Director of Development at AchieveKids, explains that social communication is integral to becoming part of the community. “This is a community based non-profit and the community starts here,” she emphasizes. Indeed, the school with close to 120 students is a community by itself. Within the classrooms, the students are taught to express in socially acceptable ways and then they move forward, through a variety of therapeutic strategies.

With two campuses in the Bay Area, one in Palo Alto and one in San Jose, the non-profit school (http://www.achievekids.org), gets kids into the program directly or through referral from public schools. The school serves 24 school districts and four counties, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, and Santa Cruz. The Palo Alto campus has classrooms organized according to skills being taught: Pragmatics, Life Skills, Functional Academics, Vocational, etc.

Certainly one technique cannot be applied as a blanket solution for all kids and all situations. Drama and role-play are part of the curriculum and help some kids more than others. It entirely depends on the verbal abilities of the students.

Even among her verbally communicative group, Sringarajan has her task cut out for her, because there are still some students who choose not to participate in the daily rehearsal schedule. “And that’s ok,” she says reassuringly, calling it, “teaching in the moment.” Some special-needs children need sensory breaks and it is important to provide that level of individuation.

Sringarajan concedes that the drama program has been her “favorite project ever since it began, and has helped many students develop new skills that serve them in their day-to-day life.” For Tammy Madeiro, the school and the individualized curriculum has opened up possibilities. She says that Jordie, without prompts, now says, “I love you.” That ability to express has brought her whole family closer.

As I walk through the AchieveKids playground, I mentally rearrange my schedule so I can be present for the Funny Bones play that will be staged on April 1, 2010 at the Mitchell Park Community Center. I pause as a student comes running with his arms outstretched. A counselor standing to one side quickly and firmly interjects, “No touchy, no touchy!” The boy slides to a halt and holds up his hand for a high-five. I give it, wishing instead for that open and unaffected hug. I go home and keep with me the memory of his smile.

Jaya Padmanabhan is a prize-winning fiction writer and is currently in the process of writing a novel.   

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