Supporting Neurodiversity in Performing Arts Education
A Healthy Performer Case Study
By developing equitable training practices and placing the student voice at the centre of teaching, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama is working to support the intellectual, emotional, and social wellbeing of their neurodivergent students.
Inequality is often experienced by neurodivergent students in educational settings. Neurodivergent students are more likely to assume that they are doing something wrong as they will likely have experienced regular feelings of failure at key points in their education, either in the classroom or on the sports field. For the neurodivergent student, the anxiety of having to discover the right answer, along with constant comparisons of themselves with others and the desire to please their teachers, can all lead to the emergence of negative thought cycles and high levels of self-criticism.
Research has shown that the progressive educational model at the heart of actor training discriminates against students who are dyslexic and/or dyspraxic. By considering how neurodiverse students learn and adapting teaching methods to more appropriately assist their learning, the intellectual wellbeing of neurodiverse conservatoire students can be better supported.
The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (Central) in London is exploring ways to enable students, regardless of their neurodiversity, to have better access to the training being offered by rejecting pedagogic myths and adopting new approaches.
Central discovered that the approaches being used within a range of psychophysical training were having a negative impact on students with Specific Learning Differences (SpLDs) such as dyslexia and dyspraxia. This insight shifted the focus away from a problem that the neurodiverse student has (i.e. a psycho-medical model) to a problem with the training itself (i.e. a social model). Rather than training diverse students to adapt to meet the requirements of the teaching methods, Central recognized the value of changing the methods to better suit the nature of the students. For example, neurodivergent acting students can sometimes get lost when working with their eyes closed, potentially due to disorientation or a lack of visual clues to help translate narrative instructions into physical experience. Rather than requiring students to adapt to an unsuitable approach, students can now simply choose whether to work with their eyes closed or open, recognizing that different students will experience the learning environment in different ways.
Training can be developed that liberates neurodivergent students from the anxiety and oppression caused by some experiential learning methods. For example, in contrast to the traditional expert-led approach to one-to-one teaching, Central has integrated a more collaborative approach to teaching into their work with students. Daron Oram, who spearheads this work, explains how “working beside my student and exploring possibilities of change rather than certainties of knowledge, I am going some way towards meeting the demand for a more personal learning that neurodiverse students have expressed in focus group sessions, as well as a desire for collaboration in teaching.” Oram also highlights the importance of building trust with neurodivergent students, which can help them overcome their lack of belief in their own abilities, reduce anxiety caused by unclear teacher expectations, and nurture their innate will to learn. He also champions peer-to-peer feedback as an ideal way for dyslexic students to collect their thoughts and rehearse what they want to say before engaging in full-group discussions.
By reframing the pedagogical model being employed within their own teaching, Central is developing an equitable approach for working with neurodivergent students. This ground-breaking work provides a case study of how focus on the intellectual, emotional, and social wellbeing of conservatoire students can enhance their learning outcomes and lead to more inclusive pedagogical approaches.
Oram D (2018), Finding a way: more tales of dyslexia and dyspraxia in psychophysical actor training, Voice and Speech Review, 12, 276-294 [DOI].
Oram D (2018), Losing sight of land: tales of dyslexia and dyspraxia in psychophysical actor training, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 9, 53-67 [DOI].