Children and ADHD: a Theatrical Approach


Theatre arts offers children performance-based activities and the opportunity to improve many life skills that affect them daily. Each individual child will benefit differently in a theatre setting and children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) could benefit greatly learning in a theatre setting. Children with ADHD suffer from lack of focus, impulsive behavior, hyperactivity and are easily distracted. Performance-based activities in a theatre setting offer constant movement and the opportunity for students to share ideas and create characters fostering self expression. An education in theatre arts can be an advantage to children, including those with ADHD, by providing an active, performance-based experience which fosters self expression, improves self discipline and focus and enhances self esteem.

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Not only can performance-based learning happen in a theatre setting, but it can happen in the classroom as well. When a child is struggling with ADHD symptoms it is important to find what helps control those symptoms with or without medication. Performance based learning improves self-discipline, focus, self-expression and self-esteem; all skills that children with ADHD struggle with. Exposing them to theatre and performance-based learning will inevitably improve those skills and ease the symptoms of ADHD.


Theatre arts is a collaboration of movement, voice, words and visual elements. Performance is a creation of work to express, in a visual way, a story. Performance based learning can happen in many ways. Theatre games are tools to help teach the basics of performing. Focus and self-discipline are important when learning and playing theatre games. It is important for the actor to see and listen to what is going on around them and be able to act accordingly. Theatre games are most often fast paced and require physical acting.

Theatre games are a great tool to help teach theatre basics such as improvisation, pantomime, character and scene work. An actor has to be able to think fast when living in the moment. A great example of how quick thinking and mental agility occurs is with the improvisational game Freeze and Justify. The game starts with two actors performing a random scene based on the positions they are posed in before the game begins. After a few minutes any student can yell freeze and take one person out of the scene and start a completely new scene based on the position the previous actor was in when freeze was yelled. The constant changes in ideas and actors in this game require the actor to think quickly and be able to adjust to the ever-changing ideas and information within a scene. Greg Atkins (1994) states that quick thinking and mental agility can only be acquired by practice and rehearsal. The actor has to be ready for any scenario, to listen, analyze the scene, react and make decisions without hesitation (6).

There are a number of exercises to help an actor improve their listening skills. Viola Spolin (1979) outlines a game called Relating an Incident. The first actor tells a short story while the second actor listens. The second actor must retell the story but add color into it. (238) Another game that helps improve listening skills is Story Telling. Five students stand in a line on stage and the instructor points to one student and that person begins telling a story. With no particular time limit, the instructor randomly points to another student and that person must continue the story right where the previous student left off; whether it is at the end of a phrase or mid-sentence. As they are story telling the students create a beginning, middle and end.

Both of these exercises help the actor understand the importance of listening to what is happening around them. Teaching the actor how to listen not only helps them on stage, but off stage as well. I have learned that the art of listening is not easy and must be practiced. I have been teaching theatre for over eight years and I spend a lot of class time with my students explaining the importance of listening to each other while on stage. Many of my students have not taken the time to hear what their acting partner is saying, and the scene goes nowhere. It is a struggle for some of them to even listen to me when I am giving directions. Theater games designed to help with listening skills have helped me explain what listening is and how it is important in life and on stage.

Spolin (1979) states When an actor sees, direct contact with others is the result (175). I believe that in order for an actor to really see what is happening they must be fully aware of their surroundings. Not only should an actor be aware of the physical surroundings, but also aware of the other actors on stage with them. All the actors are trying to create a scene with a plot and character, so each actor has to watch for all types of movement from the actors and the changes that naturally occur within the scene.

Daniel Sklar (1991) explains that detail is an important component when acting. Focusing on details is what makes a scene more exciting for the audience and the actor (25). When performing, boredom can occur if details are not present. Detailed expressions and movement create compelling scenes and captures the audience’s attention. Since performing is based around expression, it is a vehicle for children to help express their own feelings through characters. In turn, self esteem improves because they are learning new ways to express emotion whether it is their own or their characters. A positive theatre experience fosters growth and is an outlet for children to learn about themselves and the world.


All children at some point struggle with self expression, self discipline, focus, and self esteem. A child with ADHD struggles more because their symptoms prevent them from developing these skills properly. Performance based learning is one tool that can help a child with ADHD develop these skills and alleviate the symptoms of ADHD.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a developmental disorder that affects as many as 1.6 million children. The symptoms of ADHD are distractibility, hyperactivity, impulsive behaviors, and the inability to remain focused. The number of children being diagnosed with the disorder has steadily increased over the last ten years. Many of these children are at risk for developing long lasting problems that can affect their daily lives such as frustration levels, social relationships, academics, professional success and self esteem. Children with ADHD who go untreated will suffer socially, academically and may damage their self esteem.

Dr. Jan Strydom and Susan du Pleiss (2001) explore the history of ADHD and explain that ADHD has been around for over one hundred twenty years. The name has changed over the years along with various treatments. Eighty percent of children diagnosed with ADHD do not show symptoms most of the time. They behave normally in many real-life settings. In many classroom settings, where the child gets to choose their learning activity, it is difficult to distinguish the diagnosed children from the other children. Children diagnosed with ADHD behave normally when they are involved in activities that interest them, are unique and are highly stimulating (25-26).

Although medication has been the most commonly used method of treatment, there are alternative therapies. A child with ADHD needs structure and alternative therapies like behavior modification, cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, family therapy and social skills training all help control the symptoms and offer the child stability and structure. Medication alone is not the best solution when treating the symptoms of ADHD. Alternative treatments help control the symptoms in a different way. It offers ways to help the child learn how to manage their symptoms and take control of their bodies.

Along with alternative therapies medication is another treatment to explore. Although medication is often used for the treatment of ADHD it has not been proven that it is the best method of treatment. Many medications such as Ritalin are surrounded by conflict. Studies have shown that they are highly addictive and may cause future health problems. According to the Duke University Medical Center the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD has increased over the last ten years. Researchers continue to study the symptoms, causes and history of ADHD, but a cure or the best type of treatment for the disorder is still in question. Nutrition, alternative therapies, and medication are still the focus in researching the disorder and how to treat it. Even without a definitive solution to the ADHD epidemic, the use of alternative therapies has proven to be beneficial. Giving a child the opportunity to explore ways to control their impulses and learn how to manage their symptoms is an important step in learning how to deal with the disorder.

The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health states that behavior modification is based on operant conditioning developed by behaviorist B.F. Skinner. This concept is designed to shape behavior by reinforcement. Behavior modification is used to encourage positive behavior and discourage unwanted behavior. Techniques used are positive reinforcement and reward systems and in some cases a contract can be developed to lay out the terms of a reward system. This approach has been used in treating many children with ADHD (126). Having a plan set up to encourage appropriate behavior is important when dealing with a child with ADHD. ADHD is a disorder that creates chaos in the mind of a child. They are easily distracted, have difficulties focusing and have very little impulse control. Structure and balance are important to help them maintain some sort of control. A behavior plan can give a child with ADHD the structure and balance that is needed to function during the day.


Children with ADHD would benefit greatly from performance-based learning. The symptoms of ADHD can be controlled by medication but taking part in theatre is an alternative therapy that benefits a child diagnosed with ADHD. Two of the strongest symptoms of ADHD are the lack of focus and self-discipline. Performance requires strong focus and discipline and exposing a child with ADHD in a setting that requires those skills the symptoms will lessen.

In an active performance-based experience, a child with ADHD will learn how to control their impulsive behavior, stay more focused, and enhance their self-expression and self-esteem. Children can learn about the world and how to interact with each other through performance and can incorporate their own lives and ultimately process through emotions and life experiences in an affirming, collective way.

The theatre games mentioned earlier are a great resource for teaching theatre. Since most theatre games are designed to encourage the actor to focus and be creative, a child with ADHD would do well playing these games. In performance, an actor must remain constantly focused in order to be prepared for what may happen next. A child with ADHD needs constant stimulation. It is difficult for them to remain focused or attentive if their environment is not in constant motion or if they have nothing to do. In a theatre setting there is constant movement and activities. Performances change on a regular basis, creating a stimulating environment that an ADHD child needs to be able to participate fully. This type of environment feeds their energy giving them a sense of accomplishment.

Self esteem is a prominent issue with children diagnosed with ADHD. When a child has difficulties focusing or socializing appropriately with others their self esteem will suffer. Not only is a theatre setting a stimulating environment it also gives a child a sense of family. When a group of students collaborate on a performance they form a close bond called a cast family. This bond is an important step in the theatre process. Children with ADHD are often criticized because they have a hard time socializing and they can often become an outcast. A child with ADHD has an abundance of energy. In a regular classroom setting where high energy would be frowned upon, in a theatre setting it would be embraced as a skill needed for class and performance. In most cases children are working closely together to accomplish a common goal and during that process relationships are formed. Building positive relationships with fellow cast members builds self-esteem and gives a child many opportunities to socialize in a positive way.

The use of medications and alternative therapies, including drama therapy, benefit children with ADHD. Medication helps control the symptoms and various therapies are used to help maintain structure and balance. Through expression, language, and emotion, theatre explores the human condition. An actor’s movement between real and fiction in a theatre setting ultimately results in an effective balance between emotion and thought. Theatre provides a language that can help a child verbalize and identify certain emotional experiences and various thought processes. A child with ADHD is constantly struggling with this type of balance and theatre gives them tools such as self-awareness, listening skills, and language that helps them to organize and manage thoughts and feelings, to begin to try and understand and manage their personal struggles with the disorder.

A child with ADHD struggles with learning and a theatre setting is different from a regular classroom, giving a child with ADHD the opportunity to be away from a desk. Participating in theatre not only provides a stimulating environment it also provides skills such as listening and self discipline needed to learn in a regular classroom as well. Through theatre a child is constantly working with others and has to be in control of his body and has to pay close attention to what is going on around him. When these skills are gradually learned with theatre the child begins to use the skills in the classroom.

Group drama therapy is another strategy in dealing with ADHD. Lee R. Chasen (2005) explores differently themed groups geared toward specific problems children are experiencing. Children with behavioral issues such as ADHD may be working towards an unhealthy sense of power. By participating in role playing with others they build a positive vocabulary in dealing with emotional expression resulting in a healthy sense of personal power rather than power over someone else or at someone else’s expense (162). Through this process, children are learning how to connect with others in a positive way. Role playing can be manipulated to focus on any particular behavior, issue or emotion that a child may be going through. Self-esteem begins to grow, and self-discipline and expression are learned.

In my classroom I have several students diagnosed with ADHD. I have witnessed the benefits of theatre in their lives and have strived on a daily basis to help make their theatre experience a positive one. During class we play theatre games and I focus my lessons on keeping my students busy with performing to keep the energy up in the classroom. There is constant movement including dance and physical acting which creates a stimulating environment. I rarely see the ADHD symptoms during class.


The information I have researched would be beneficial for teachers and parents who have children diagnosed with ADHD. Performance based learning is a positive alternative therapy to help control the symptoms of ADHD. I have shown that a stimulating environment is required for a child with ADHD and performance-based learning provides that environment to help maintain focus, self discipline, and self expression and will ultimately enhance self esteem.


Fundukian, L. J. (2008). The Gale encyclopedia of mental health. Thomson Gale.

Greg Atkins. (1994). Improv!: A handbook for the actor. Heinemann Drama.

Sklar, D. J. (1991). Playmaking: Children Writing and Performing Their Own Plays. Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 5 Union Square West, New York, NY 10003.

Spolin, V. (1979). Improvisation for the Theater.

Strydom, J., & Du Plessis, S. (2001). The Myth of ADHD and other Learning Disabilities: Parenting without Ritalin. Huntington House.

Weber, A. M., & Haen, C. (Eds.). (2005). Clinical applications of drama therapy in child and adolescent treatment. Psychology Press.

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Children and ADHD: A Theatrical Approach. (2019, Oct 30). Retrieved October 1, 2022 , from

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