The Situationist

Role-Playing Helps Adolescent Emotional Learning

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 24, 2007

ShakespeareIt’s standard advice: if you want to be something, act like you already are. Smile if you are sad, and you just might turn that frown upside down (for real). Act like you have confidence, and you will have confidence. Fake it ’til you make it. The message is explicit and implicit in drama. Ben Affleck in Boiler Room tells his sales staff to “act as if.” Even Shakespeare had Hamlet’s act of craziness draw him deeper into insanity. And actors the world over, become their characters, at least for a while.

Of course, a basic lesson of social psychology and related fields is that we all occupy role schemas (doctor, customer, flight attendant, officer, and so on), have person schemas for those we know, and create self-schemas or narratives for ourselves to help make sense of who we are. Role-playing is everywhere, though typically it is only implicit.

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign researchers Reed Larson and Jane Brown recently followed a group of high school students in a situation with many new roles to play: a theater program. They found that not only did the experience force the students to deal with complex emotions, but discussing them with others helped them to develop emotionally. ScienceDaily carries the report.

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High School Theater Program Helped Strengthen Adolescents’ Emotional Development

A unique study found that adolescents’ emotional skills were strengthened through a high school theater program.

hs-oz.jpgA study conducted among adolescents in a high school theater program demonstrated how teens learned about how to employ positive emotions to motivate their work. Students also used strategies to manage their own and others’ negative emotions. The research was conducted through interviews with the students during a three-month period of rehearsals. This study demonstrates how schools and programs can support the development of “emotional intelligence” of adolescents.

Adolescents face formidable challenges in emotional development. To become functional adults, they must learn to manage the emotions that unfold in complex social interactions, including those in collaborative work groups. Yet little is known about the day-to-day circumstances of adolescents’ emotional development.

Researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign conducted open-ended interviews and observations to gain an in-depth understanding of one setting–a high school theater program. Ten teenagers were interviewed every two weeks over a three-month period while the theater group rehearsed a musical.

Two adults who led the production also were interviewed biweekly. In addition, the researchers observed the rehearsals weekly. During the rehearsals, teenagers reported frequent emotional experiences, including disappointment, anger, anxiety, and exhilaration. The program provided a culture that helped them learn to respond constructively to the events and feelings associated with these different emotions, the researchers found. The adults provided models and helped the teens cultivate strategies to manage strong emotions. The youth learned from repeatedly using these strategies to employ positive emotions to motivate their work; they also learned how to manage their own and others’ negative emotions.

High School MusicalThe theater setting supported this process by putting the youth in situations in which emotions were likely to occur because the expectation of hard work created stress and tension. Moreover, intense emotions were accepted and discussed openly with a climate of concern for others. The adults and youth alike stated shared beliefs about the importance of emotional experience, and the adolescents drew on the models and ideas of the culture as they learned about the dynamics of emotions in themselves and in groups.

The researchers also found that the young people were very actively engaged in the process of emotional learning. In the theater setting, they were proactive in learning to manage emotional situations, evaluated experiences and put to use the insights they gained, and actively drew on the ideas and assistance of adults and peers.

“The development of ’emotional intelligence’ is important to adult work and family life, but many young people arrive in adulthood with incomplete emotional skills,” according to Reed W. Larson, professor of human and community development at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the study’s lead author. “These preliminary findings suggest how, under the right conditions, adolescents strengthen these skills. Although further research is needed, youth programs and schools that provide these conditions may be more likely to facilitate emotional learning.”

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Follow this link to read more about Reed Larson and Jane Brown’s findings. This post is one in a series tracing the influence of situational influences on the development of children from youth into adolescence. To read other posts on this topic, go to “Jock or Nerd?: Where Do You Sit at the Dinner Table?,” “Biology and Environment Affect Childhood Behavioral Development,” or “Growing up in a Sexualizing Situation.”


4 Responses to “Role-Playing Helps Adolescent Emotional Learning”

  1. Doug S. said

    I’ve heard lots of stories about Dungeons and Dragons type games helping people become more able to function in social situations.

    Also, I HATE how so many of these academic papers that I want to read are stuck behind these fucking gatekeeper sites that charge a ridiculous $29.00 for a single article. I mean, really; who’s going to pay that FOR A SINGLE FUCKING DOWNLOAD? You can buy a hardcover book for less that that, and the marginal cost of a download is practically zero! I don’t normally use profanity, but sites like JSTOR and Blackwell Synergy are worse than useless for anyone who doesn’t live at a university, and they make me angry.

    This is why we need copyright reform. If I’m convicted of shoplifting a CD from a retail store, I face lighter penalties than if I make an illegal copy of that same CD by downloading the files.

  2. […] Posted by Nima Maleki on July 25th, 2007 From the Situationist: […]

  3. […] Role-Playing Helps Adolescent Emotional Learning […]

  4. […] of children from youth into adolescence. To read other posts on this topic, go to “Role-Playing Helps Adolescent Emotional Learning,” “Jock or Nerd?: Where Do You Sit at the Dinner Table?,” “Biology and Environment […]

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