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Drama for SEN, SEND and ESL students

Notes from Music & Drama Education Expo workshop, 7th March 2019.


As part of Theatre Workout's bespoke service, we create workshops on all forms of theatre and performance for groups with a broad range of backgrounds and abilities. This has included SEND (Special Educational Needs & Disabilities) and for ESL (English as a Second Language) students.

Through trial and error, Theatre Workout has developed a body of workshops designed to engage, inspire and educate students through practical games and exercises with positive results.

For ESL groups these primarily consist of physical styles of performance which can be taught through demonstration, avoiding any conceptual techniques associated with acting, and more to do with creating shapes with the body and sounds with the voice. Theatre Workout currently caters for about international 2000 students a year through this programme.

For SEND groups, depending on the range and scale of the issues within the group, more conceptual ideas can be presented, but physical forms of performance are also positively received.

Our Approach:

There are similarities across these two disciplines as with early years education in that we place more importance on how exercises are taught than choice of exercise itself. By understanding the abilities and limitations of the group we can tailor our approach accordingly to deliver each exercises in a way which captures and maintains their attention, usually across a two hour session.

One of the most important considerations is the use of concise, clear instructions combined with conscious gestures and physicality.

Body language and voice communicate far more than speech, but we all use gestures everyday which have no real importance. In order to keep instructions clear and concise, we need to ensure we apply this approach to our use of gestures and the tone of voice used.

SEND Practical Exercises:

Theatre Workout's workshops are designed to include initial warm-up exercises to focus the group, and for us to assess the group before progressing onto preparatory exercises which lead on to more performance-based techniques.

Preparatory exercises are the building blocks on which performance work is built. Each exercise has a particular and specific lesson.

Naming: Designed to encourage free thought and creativity.

Part One - Walk around the space, look at things, point at them, and in a loud clear voice say what you see, such as "door", "window", "ceiling fan" etc...

Part Two - Repeat but say the name of the think you pointed at last, such as point at door say nothing, point at window say "door", point at ceiling fan say "window", and so on.

Part Three - Repeat but call it anything other than what it is., such as "Helicopter", "gingerbread", "bagpipes", etc.

Discuss the three. Which was hardest? Why do we sensor our speech? Repeat part three but pick up the pace, avoid patterns, try to say the first word/sound which comes to mind.

Picnic: Designed to explore the foundations of improvisation and the creative process

Part One - In pairs plan a picnic. Take turns to offer something which is rejected by the other person.

Part Two - Take turns to offer something which is met with an unsure, non committal response

Part Three - Take turns to offer something which is met with a "yes, and..." response, adding to the offer

These exercises should help students to become free with their thoughts, encourage them to say "yes" to new ideas, and be more confident in their ability to create.

ESL Practical Exercises:

For ESL - focus on techniques they can learn through observation. These are designed to achieve the same confidence in creativity and communication but through a physical rather than verbal approach.

Following the Hand: In pairs, A guides B around the space by holding their hand in front of B's face. There is no contact at this stage. A should move slowly, guiding B, ensuring they don't guide B into other people or obstacles. B should follow A, focusing on A's palm which should help them move freely.

Mirroring: Standing a few feet apart, A makes slow, bold movements. B should create a mirror image moving in sync with A. As students practice this they should start to work together without a chosen leader, moving in sync, communicating physically.


These exercises can be developed into image or forum theatre storytelling projects, using the body to create storyboard images. As confidence grows they can be developed into dance or other contact-based movement techniques.

Contact us today to discuss developing a workshop for your group!

Q&A from the session:

Q: How do you approach a group with a diverse mixture of abilities, such as a couple of ESL students within a regular class?

A: The ESL students are at a disadvantage and may naturally be withdrawn from the rest of the group. Physical exercises work for all age groups and abilities and can be used with both ESL and English speaking students. The more you do it the more you can encourage ESL students to work in groups with other students to finish a physical task, thus building their confidence.

Q: I have some SEND students who like playing games but won't do anything else. Any tips?

A: Make everything a game, perhaps with a competition element. Change your language to refer to each exercise as a game, and then devise performance out of that. Many companies create performances out of games resulting in improvisations within a given structure, perhaps with text, devised around scenes, or movement work.

Q: My SEND students often loose focus or get distracted easily. How do I keep them engaged?

A: Our sessions usually last two hours. With challenging groups we have to be prepared to plough through to find an exercises which works, so have plenty of resources available to fall back on.

Another technique is to be careful with your choice of language. Some students can take small things to heart so compliments can be confusing. Saying "well done", "that was really good", etc can make them think they've been bad if they don't get the compliment again. Instead compliment them by saying "It was really clear what you were doing", "I thought you understood the characters motive", "I think you exceeded your expectations".

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