As the Director of Education at New York City Children’s Theater, I have the task of creating age-appropriate curricula for both elementary and middle school students. In creating these programs, I’ve had to pay close attention to the developmental difference between the ages of these children so that I could address relevant and interesting topics that appealed to these specific ages, and respect (yet challenge) the inhibiting social/personal barriers that develop and strengthen with age.
When students enter middle school they are thrust into an intricate web of social hierarchy. Being “cool” and accepted becomes increasingly important. When entering middle school, it’s important that children are validated for their uniqueness and encouraged to have pride in what makes them stand out from the crowd, rather than blend in. Middle school is a time when children begin to explore their sense of identity. Unfortunately, it can also be a time when rigid labels get placed on certain individuals. This is a confusing dichotomy that can and should be deconstructed. Parents can talk to their children about misconceptions and the dangers that come along with trying to define any one person as any one thing.
It’s also important to have an open dialogue about bullying. The majority of students will experience bullying at some point in their school experience. They may not the target of the bullying, but it’s likely they will see it occurring around them which can also be very traumatic. The best thing parents can do to help a child who has experienced bullying or is feeling down emotionally, is to involve them in activities that promote self-esteem. Creative projects help children express and explore their feelings about various topics. The most important thing is to provide a safe space where children can ask questions, and articulate their ideas without fear of judgment.
Some children gravitate towards sports, others enjoy writing, and some might prefer visual arts. Find out what your child enjoys doing and where they feel they have talent and involve them in a group, class or workshop that allows them to participate in this activity with other children who also enjoy the same activity. This kind of collaborative environment promotes positive partnerships among children, and if your child already feels they have a talent in this particular area, they are more likely to feel validated for their contributions. Getting your child to talk about their feelings is incredibly important. Before they can begin to heal from any emotional distress, they need to be able to articulate why they’re feeling that way and how they think they might begin to overcome those challenging emotions. Children often feel ashamed of themselves for being picked on, as if it were somehow their fault.
We as adults need to assure them that they are not to blame. Theatre and role playing, either in a drama class, or even at home, is an excellent way to practice reactions to potential real-life situations while remaining in a safe environment. Set up some scenarios or reenact situations that have already occurred and practice making different choices of how your child could respond. Talk about the potential outcomes of these choices and whether they help to diffuse the situation.
NYC Children’s Theater offers a variety of theatre programs that foster creativity, exploration and dialogue. Theatre not only supports the academic components of a child’s education, it also fosters personal growth. Alice’s Story, an interactive anti-bullying theatre performance and workshop created by NYC Children’s Theater, offers students an opportunity to freeze time and discuss the repercussions of various decisions. While watching two actors play out an incident of bullying, children are empowered to converse with the characters and advise them on possible actions they could take to remedy the situation. The scenes are replayed with these new suggestions and the students get to see whether or not those new actions changed or helped the scenario.
This type of behavioral preparation builds confidence because it lets children take risks, fail, try another solution and talk about their feelings. If they ever find themselves in a similar situation, they will have the tools they need to trouble-shoot the issue.