Dramatherapy is helping children in Wandsworth primary schools who are struggling with anxiety, communication difficulties and low self-esteem. The past two years have been tough for children. For many of the youngest age groups, issues like disruption to schooling and isolation from their peers has dominated their young lives. South West London charity Roundabout Dramatherapy is teaching children techniques borrowed from theatre and other creative therapies to help them process and communicate complex emotions.
We’ve seen really high levels of anxiety in children“Deborah Haythorne, Dramatherapist
“Some of these children have struggled to return to school. There has been a lot of anxiety during the pandemic in adults too, and children are reacting to that, often unexpectedly in school situations or at home.”
Nine-year-old Joe is an example. He had witnessed domestic violence in the home by his father and his mother found it difficult to connect with him, meaning Joe was often left to his own devices. At school he was playing alone and struggling to learn when things didn’t go his way.
Based in Sutton, the charity Roundabout Dramatherapy was set by Deborah and her colleague Lynn Cedar 35 years ago for people of all ages. It has been commissioned in Wandsworth by the NHS in South West London to work with primary-aged children in the Putney, Roehampton, Balham and Tooting areas, with sessions hosted by three local primary schools.
Dramatherapy uses the techniques of theatre – from role play and improvisation to puppets and props – to help children process and communicate complex emotions. It sits alongside the other creative therapies, such as art, music, dance and play therapy.
Sessions can start with something as simple passing a beach ball
But don’t be fooled by the name. Dramatherapy is not about performing on stage – it doesn’t even need to include verbal communication. As Deborah explains, sessions can start with something as simple passing a beach ball in a game between child and therapist used to help regulate breathing and emotions and build trust.
Dramatherapy is a really great way of communicating
“Even us adults often have difficulty finding the words to describe and explain accurately what our feelings are. Dramatherapy is a really great way of communicating. As therapists, we read and respond to the body language and the sounds, intonations and facial expressions of the child.”
As each session develops the therapist might move between what is real and imaginary. Says Deborah: “We might ask the child, ‘have you got any, good news, or not so good news, and things that you’ve enjoyed this week?’ We might go on to empty out a big bag of puppets and explore them together. Children inevitably begin to tell their own story. We are all attracted to stories that reflect aspects of our lives.”
In Joe’s case, he began to trust the dramatherapist and a relationship gradually developed. In one session, the therapist built a camp out of cushions. Joe only watched at first, then went inside, where he began to feel calm and relaxed. On subsequent weeks, he suggested camp building again and engaged in the construction. Through this and other dramatherapy techniques, Joe became more resilient and more confident about who he was.
Children are referred to dramatherapy by child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) or their school. Often it is to help with social and communication difficulties, however, children are referred for a whole range of other reasons too, including school refusal, self-harm, family trauma and bereavement.
Most of the children using the service are in years four to six of primary school, but as understanding of the therapy has grown locally, younger children are benefitting too.
Craig, who has learning disabilities, was referred to the service by his school because of concerns about his low mood. It became clear that well-intentioned efforts by the adults around him to help him ‘cheer up’ were piling on the pressure, compounding his anxiety.
Craig wasn’t sure about dramatherapy at first, but quickly began to look forward to the sessions. According to Craig: “In dramatherapy you can be yourself, show how you feel and not have to change to act better, or to make someone else happy”.
His confidence grew and even Craig’s body language appeared to shift – from slumped shoulders to a much more confident posture, holding his head up and making eye contact.
It’s clear children have struggled during the pandemic
As Robert Dyer, Senior Transformation Manager for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services at NHS South West London explained, dramatherapy is part of a range of new programmes to support children in Wandsworth. “It’s clear children have struggled during the pandemic,” he said. “For young people with autism and learning disabilities things have been particularly challenging as their routines changed, preferred activities ended and friendly faces of carers and teachers changed.
“After listening to families talk about the major difficulties they faced, we worked with Wandsworth Council and South West London St George’s Mental Health Trust on these new ways of supporting children’s needs from an early stage, often without the wait for a diagnosis.
“As well as dramatherapy we’ve also set up an autism advisory service, autism key workers and behaviour analysts, who provide guidance to families on living positively and avoiding situations that trigger anxiety, and a buddying scheme for teenagers.”