March 29, 2023

Students Learn Social-Emotional Skills By Acting Out Their Problem Solving

ADVICE FROM THE EXPERTS: Littlebrook Elementary School students help McKayla, played by a McCarter Theatre Center actor educator, to resolve her conflict over the school spelling bee in an exchange during McCarter’s anti-bullying program in Gita Varadarajan’s fourth grade classroom last Friday.

By Donald Gilpin

The volume rose rapidly in what sounded like a heated exchange among angry students in Room 40 at Riverside Elementary School last Friday.

Conflict, anger, peer pressure, and decision-making were all in the lesson plan, as three actor educators from McCarter Theatre Center’s anti-bullying program enlisted 20 fourth graders as a “student leadership team” to help resolve a raging dispute between two finalists in the school spelling bee.

The interactive drama exploring an incident at a fictional elementary school led the eager students to discuss the potential dangers of impulsive decision-making, as the actor educators moved in and out of character to talk with the children and reflect on the story. Managing emotions in a safe and responsible manner was the goal, and the Riverside students enthusiastically took on their roles as student leaders, giving advice to the characters to help them make better decisions to arrive at a positive outcome.

“Through the performance they were able to transport themselves into the event that was presented, put themselves in the shoes of the characters, and respond in authentic ways,” said fourth grade teacher Gita Varadarajan. “The situation presented was one that was familiar and relatable and that helped them engage very actively during the session.”

She continued, “They also saw the event as a mirror and window to their lives and the lives of others, which helped them see the same situation through multiple perspectives. They were able to feel what the characters felt. This was a great way to teach empathy, to enable these youngsters to understand and share the feelings and experiences of another.”

Riverside Elementary School counselor Ben Samara emphasized the value of the program for his students. “It’s a big topic because social skills and social-emotional learning are such a huge piece of what we have to do now, especially after the pandemic,” he said. “And this is one of the best programs we’ve had.”

He added, “Kids need to understand conflict resolution and the options they have when they feel what we call those icky feelings — mad, sad, frustrated, upset, and angry.”

The McCarter program, titled “Fair and Square,” will have been seen by all fourth and fifth graders at Riverside, as well as Littlebrook and Johnson Park, by mid-April. It is sponsored by a two-year grant from the New Jersey Council for the Arts, which last year funded a partner program from McCarter, Alice’s Story, which visited first, second, and third grade classrooms at the same schools.

McCarter Education Director Brooke Boertzel, co-creator of the program more than a dozen years ago when she was working as education director of New York City Children’s Theatre, noted the need for an anti-bullying program that is not lecture-based and not an assembly program packing hundreds of kids into a room with a single adult speaker.

“Why not use theater, which is such a powerful tool, to explore this topic with students?” she said. “This program empowers the students, makes them the experts in the room, the ones who are giving good advice and guidance to the characters who are experiencing challenging situations.”

She emphasized the importance of letting the children take the lead. “Students have an innate sense of empathy and a strong moral compass, and when given the tools and the situation to advise, they tend to stand up for what is right and to stand up for each other.”

She went on, “We thought it would be really great if we allowed them the freedom to create this culture of respect and community for their classrooms. They identify what’s OK and how people would treat each other in their classroom instead of someone mandating or dictating what they should do.”

Boertzel pointed out that the program is still touring in the New York City schools after a total of about 15,000 performances since 2008-09. Citing the positive feedback from students, teachers, and counselors, she added, “Weaving and integrating the theatrical model so that the students are experiencing the lessons through a story really activates the learning experience for them.”

She described herself as “an experiential learner,” stating, “I am a strong believer that having someone lecture me did nothing to help me retain information. Theater is a powerful educational tool to explore any subject.”

Having observed this program in schools in every borough of New York City and in many schools in New Jersey, Boertzel said, “I’m always impressed with how wise children are when you stop talking and allow them to share their perspectives. That’s the key — giving moments of silence to allow the students to share their own personal responses or their own feelings. And when they’re advising the characters what to do, they’re really advising themselves and arming themselves with the tools they need to potentially maneuver these types of situations.”

She noted that in Princeton the involvement of school counselors in supporting the program has been particularly impressive and effective. “It’s been very reassuring to me to know that there’s a designated person in each of the schools whose main focus is about mental and emotional health for the students,” she said.

Varadarajan agreed that drama is “a powerful tool” to engage the students and immerse them in the scene, and she added that it “also can break through language and cultural barriers as was evident in Friday’s participation by some of the English Language Learner (ELL) students.

“In the session, the students went beyond listening to the words to listening to the feelings and emotions behind the words and really thinking about why a character was thinking, feeling, or saying something. They also learned a useful strategy to regulate their emotions.”

Varadarajan said that her students especially enjoyed the interactive nature of the performance. Everybody in the class got involved and almost all helped with advice for the characters. They especially appreciated the “PICK Trick” a strategy provided by the actor educators: “Pause. Inhale deeply. Consider the consequences. Keep yourself and others safe.”

“They felt they had learned a valuable strategy that they could use in their lives,” said Varadarajan.

McCarter’s grant from the NJ Council for the Arts still has some funding left for the final two months of the school year. Interested schools can contact Boertzel at