Addressing Bullying in Schools Through Drama Therapy


Bullying is an age-old and international problem. Surveys have identified bullying in schools across the globe. Dan Olewus first systematically researched bullying in Sweden in the 1970’s and created the first official definition and the first major intervention program (Olewus, 1993). UNESCO’s definition of bullying in schools is based on Olewus’s:

A learner is bullied when s/he is exposed repeatedly over time to aggressive behaviour that intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort through physical contact, verbal attacks, fighting or psychological manipulation. Bullying involves an imbalance of power and can include teasing, taunting, use of hurtful nicknames, physical violence or social exclusion. A bully can operate alone or within a group of peers. Bullying may be direct, such as one child demanding money or possessions from another, or indirect, such as a group of students spreading rumours about another. Cyber bullying is harassment through e-mail, cell phones, text messages and defamatory websites.  (UNESCO)

The key component in bullying is imbalance of power, which can be addressed best through education and action interventions using drama therapy.

Negotiation author and expert William Ury, in his book Getting to Peace (retitled The Third Side in a revised edition) explains that there are three sides to any conflict, not two sides. In the case of bullying the three sides are the bully, the victim, and the community. The community has a vested interest resolving the conflict, because it disrupts cooperation and peace. In recent books on bullying, such as Barbara Coloroso’s 2003 book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, those three sides are reiterated. Most bystanders function as passive community witnesses to the bullying, because they do not know positive action steps to take to stop it. Without appropriate intervention skills they fear they will be pulled into the conflict and possibly become victims, too.

In case you believe that bullying is a normal rite of passage that children and teens need to experience as part of growing up, think again. Research reveals that children who have been bullied have more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders than children who have not. These disorders continue into adulthood. Victims of bullies are 4.3 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder as an adult, and bullies who were also victims are 14.5 times more likely to develop panic disorder, 4.8 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression, and 18.5 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts as adults (Saint Louis, 2013).

Different parts of the brain have sensitive growth periods; exposure to trauma in those periods can interfere with brain development. Martin Teicher and his associates scanned the brains of young adults who had been bullied as children and had no history of other traumatic abuse. Scans showed abnormalities in the corpus callosum that links the left brain with the right resembling abnormalities found in children who had experienced multiple forms of childhood trauma. His model of how peer verbal abuse psychologically effects children at different ages indicates peer verbal abuse in elementary school can lead to somatization (psychosomatic symptoms), in middle school to anxiety, drug use, depression, and dissociation, and in high school to anger and hostility (Anthes, 2010; Teicher et al, 2010).

In a study conducted by psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt, boys who were bullied showed higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, than boys who were not. These higher levels weaken the immune system and can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in creating memories. Vaillancourt speculates that that this may be one reason why bullied students have more difficulty learning and earn lower grades once bullying starts (Anthes, 2010). Neuroscientist Daniel A. Peterson found that in rats who were victims of bullying by other rats, after just one bullying experience, neuron cells in a bullied rat’s hippocampus (the memory making area) started to die (Anthes, 2010).

Bullies are affected as much as their victims. As adults they are 4.1 times more likely to develop anti-social personality disorder, which often leads them into a life of crime (Saint Louis, 2013). These scientific studies explain why dealing with bullying behavior effectively is important to the health, wellbeing, and education of all students.

Unfortunately, most bullying curricula, including the one developed by Olewus, which is considered to be the “gold standard,” provide education about bullying and guidelines for student behavior, but after implementation in schools, the bullying remains. The problem is these programs are lecture-based and follow a standardized, one-size-fits-all protocol with fixed objectives that do not take the ambiguous nature of the world into consideration (Boggs, et al., 2007). Bullying is a complex problem and cannot be solved without a flexible, context specific approach. Solutions work best when they come from the students; then students feel empowered to take action (McGrath, 2013).

Drama Therapy Interventions

Enter drama therapy! Drama therapy matches active interventions to specific behaviors and situational problems. Participants are engaged mentally, physically, and emotionally in the learning, whether they are acting or watching. Because it is embodied and action-oriented, drama therapy offers a powerful and safe experiential alternative to passive education. By its very nature drama therapy develops students’ perspective taking and empathy, self-expression, flexible problem-solving, internal locus of control, and abilities to share and collaborate with others. Students’ participation is valued and needed in drama therapy, and the opportunity to practice newly learned knowledge and skills in fictional situations that function realistically help students integrate and remember how to respond appropriately.

In addition to educational pluses, research indicates that artistic activities enhance moods, emotions, and psychological states, contribute toward the reduction of stress and depression, and alleviate physiological states associated with stress (Nobel & Stuckey, 2010). Through drama therapy students can deal with the intense emotional issues of bullying without feeling the need to tune out or risk becoming re-traumatized. Finally, when an activity is viewed as more personally meaningful, students become motivated participants who are more apt to apply the information they have learned to real-life situations (Dawes & Larson, 2010).

A variety of action methods used by drama therapists can prevent and end bullying in a non-violent, effective manner. Exactly which interventions will work best depends on the age of the students and the specifics of the problem, as well as the schedule, timeframe, and resources available in the school.

Forum Theatre

Forum Theatre, created in the 60’s by Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal, is an interactive theatre form that allows participants to explore an imbalance of power through the lens of social justice (Gourd & Gourd, 2011; Sajnani, 2009). Since imbalance of power is the key element in bullying, Forum Theatre addresses the root problem. In a Forum Theatre performance actors improvise a previously created scenario that depicts a situation of oppression. Then the scene is replayed, and the Joker, or emcee, asks the audience to stop the action at a pivotal moment and suggest changes an actor could take to improve the situation. The scene is replayed to see if the suggestion works. Audience members (called spect-actors, because they are actively participating as well as watching) are also encouraged to enter the scene and show the actors their idea. As the scene is re-worked, many suggestions can be tried out for the same moment to see which work and which do not. The Joker facilitates dialogue about ways to equalize the relationships among the characters (Boggs et al., 2007; Gourd & Gourd, 2011; Sajnani, 2009). A key to creating deep and pertinent educational discussions is to embed learning objectives into the scenario and to have the Joker provide background knowledge, frame thought provoking questions, and instill the spec-actors with the confidence to challenge the status quo and dig deeper (Boggs et al., 2007; Gourd & Gourd, 2011). This engages students in ethical discussions and decision making, allowing them to improve not only their moral and ethical reasoning, but also their perspective taking and empathy skills.

A professional Forum Theatre company could be brought into a school to perform, but an even more effective use of Forum Theatre is to have a drama therapist work with small groups of students to create fictional scenarios based on current school issues. These students would present the scenes to small classes with the drama therapist as Joker, optimizing chances to involve as many students in the exploration as possible.

 Middle school (ages 10 to 14) is not too early to engage students in Forum Theatre. Young adolescents can be self-centered and rebellious, because they are testing boundaries and experimenting with their identity as they move from childhood to adulthood, but they also need structure and yearn for mentorship from the trusted adults in their lives (Reagan, 2015). Early adolescents are usually in Stage Three (the Morality of Interpersonal Cooperation) of Kohlberg’s moral development continuum where the focus on peer relationships. However, they can also relate strongly to issues of social justice and bringing these concerns into education at this time increases their moral maturity and sense of responsibility.

James DeBastiani, a Registered Drama Therapist and drama teacher in Delaware, USA, turned detention at his middle school into a laboratory for exploring new ways to solve conflict through Forum Theatre and other Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. Detention is a form of punishment for students who get into trouble that requires the offenders to stay after school. Jim turned detention from a time of punishment into an opportunity for learning. Students were able to express themselves and investigate new ways to solve problems through drama. Some began thinking about the points of view of the other students and teachers for the first time. Jim served as the Joker who pushed them to take emotional risks that helped them understand themselves and others better (personal communication, 2004).

Playback Theater

Another theatre form used by drama therapists that can transform bullying behavior is Playback Theatre. Created in the 1970’s by Jonathan Fox and his wife Jo Salas, Playback Theatre elicits personal feelings and stories from audience members who watch them acted out (played back) by a trained team of improvisational actors. A Playback Theatre performance is facilitated by an emcee called the Conductor, who welcomes the audience and elicits stories (Salas, 2005, 2011). While the Conductor in Playback is analogous to the Joker in Forum Theatre, his/her function is a little different; the Conductor is less provocateur, more supportive dramaturg, helping the Teller to articulate his/her story.

Jo Salas, a Registered Music Therapist, has been involved for over a decade in using Playback Theatre to address bullying in schools from elementary through high school through a program she calls “No More Bullying!” (NMB) Playback. A NMB Playback performance starts with the professional actors briefly sharing their bullying experiences, followed by involving the audience in creating a group definition of bullying. Then students are invited to invent a fictional scenario in which an imaginary character, played by a troupe member, is bullied. They are asked for suggestions about how the witnesses in the scene could help. This fictional scene is a technique borrowed from Theatre Forum for the purposes of modeling constructive bullying solutions. (Scenes of retribution are not acted out.) Finally, students are invited to tell about an experience as a victim, witness, or bully and watch it come to life. Because the adults are modeling respect and because the ritual form of Playback creates an environment of acceptance and safety, students are able to sit in the spotlight, speak up and shift the power. If disrespect rears its ugly head during a performance, Jo intervenes immediately to stop it (Salas, 2011).

Jo says when the audience sees a scene enacted: They understand it viscerally – it’s not just about the words, it’s about the physical expression. When you see a feeling embodied by an actor, you have a kinesthetic response: you feel it in your own body. You understand it in a non-cognitive way…if you are the “teller,” seeing your feeling expressed in the bodies, faces, and voices of the actors allows you to know beyond doubt that you’ve been heard and understood (Salas, 2011, 107).

When possible, six weeks previous to a school performance, Jo trains a group of diverse students weekly in Playback techniques and teaches them about bullying. As they practice Playback, telling their stories of bullying experiences to each other during the training, their skills at empathy grow just as their acting skills do. Then during the performances teams of four students and three adult actors work together to play back bullying stories to audiences of 25 to 50 (Salas, 2011). When their peers are onstage, students sit up and take notice, or as one student actor told Jo, “If a child hears it from a child, they listen.” (Salas, 2011, 107).  These children then become anti-bullying leaders in their schools (Salas, 2011).

Playback Theatre has also been used as a tool for conflict resolution with middle and high school students by Timothy Reagan, Registered Drama Therapist and drama teacher, at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of the Playback Theatre School in New York and an accredited Playback trainer. Tim began integrating Playback Theatre into the Sidwell curriculum as a way for students to reflect on their individual stories in a class taken by all 7th grade students. He leads an 8th grade Playback troupe called Vertical Voices and a high school troupe called Friendly Rewinders (Reagan, 2015). While Forum Theatre helps students connect outward to the world and social justice principles through their life experiences, Tim feels that Playback Theatre helps adolescents “learn to turn inward; to access, share, and listen to personal stories. Playback provides a significant experience for adolescents to make personal connections between creative expression and the healing power of the arts” (Reagan, 2015, 26). Empathic listening skills are developed through storytelling and story listening (Reagan, 2015). Students begin to treat each other with more respect and consideration.

Eclectic Mixes of Drama Therapy Interventions

Other drama therapists, like Becca Greene van Horne, incorporate many drama therapy techniques, including Playback, to inoculate students against bullying and teach empathy and constructive behavior. Her adolescent ActSmart Improv Theatre in Amherst, Massachusetts, USA, was created in response to the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a bullied girl from a neighboring town. They rehearse weekly and then perform at local schools to pass along their message through improv, rehearsed skits, and Playback (Diehl, 2012). Becca says, “I’m committed to teaching everyone emotional and social intelligence through play and drama” (Diehl, 2012, 2). She feels that drama therapy is how to implement bullying education “in a constructive and appropriate way [because] we can act out what we wished would have happened, and we can act out different alternatives for choices that were made” (Diehl, 2012, 2-3). Becca also offers anti-bullying workshops, social/emotional intelligence training, and conflict resolution training with student, parent, and teacher/administrator groups to get participants dramatically involved in learning pro-social behavior.

In Kansas City, Missouri, USA, Registered Drama Therapy Monica Phinney directs a troupe of teen actors in The Outrage, an ever-evolving script (to keep it up to date) about dating violence and sexual assault, another form of bullying that adolescents face. The show tours to middle and high schools. After performances the drama therapist and the actors hold a question and answer session with the students, and follow-up drama therapy workshops are held at the schools in the following weeks. In addition, Monica runs an 8-10 week Healthy Relationships curriculum in schools, delivering information through role play, theatre games, and other drama therapy methods.

Excellent plays for young audiences have been written on bullying. These can be can be performed to explore the subject in a safe public forum. During rehearsals, student actors should be educated about bullying facts and myths, and time should be set aside for discussion and sharing among cast members, so they can process not just the material in the play, but also the experiences they have had in their own lives. Actors need to be de-roled[i] after each rehearsal and performance, so that they do not take the roles of bully, victim, or bystander home with them. Talkbacks on the subject should be held after every performance so audience members can ask questions, get information, and de-role themselves. Talkbacks can include a panel of experts to speak to the issue, including educators, therapists, and witnesses or victims who feel strong enough to share their stories. If there are printed bullying resources in the school or community, those should be included in the program or available to be picked up in the lobby.


In the age of Facebook and social media, bullying has moved from the classroom, the playground, and school hallways, to cyberspace where some of the cruelest bullying happens. Some cyber-bullying happens anonymously, but even when posts publically identify bullies, they often acts as if they is anonymous and all-powerful. Once something is up on the internet, it can be taken down from public view, but before that happens it could be copied, pasted, forwarded, uploaded, and downloaded by unknown amount of known and unknown others. Even if a post is “deleted,” it still remains forever somewhere on a server in cyberspace. The act of posting a bullying message or insult is a faceless, non-embodied way to strike out at and humiliate someone without fear of physical, embodied reprisal in the moment (James, 2014; Wong-Lo et al, 2012.)

In her book Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, Carrie James introduces the concept of conscientious connectivity. It is not enough to think about your perspective (self-focused thinking) and your family and friends’ perspectives (moral thinking). To use the internet ethically one must be able to engage in complex perspective taking: becoming aware of everyone who could be affected by an online action – self, known others, and unknown others – committing to care about the consequences of your online actions and developing the motivation to deeply explore the ethical blind spots and disconnects that are hidden from our view by technology and the newness of the media. Finally, one must be willing to take action beyond that of not being an online bully by appropriately confronting cyber-bullies and engaging in thoughtful online conversations about issues instead of thoughtless rants. In short, ethical online thinking is community thinking, representing the Third Side.

Any of the drama therapy methods shared previously would work to help educate students of the consequences of cyber-bullying. One important suggestion, however, is to have an adult actor (not the drama therapist who must facilitate the session) enrolled as the recipient of cyber-bully in scenes, as these taunts can be so hurtful and outrageous that having a student on the receiving end could be traumatizing or re-traumatizing whether they have been cyber-bullied in the past or not.

One drama therapist in Lawrence, Kansas, USA, who is also a filmmaker, was able to offer her community a very creative twist on bully and cyber-bully education. As the Outreach Coordinator for the GaDuGi SafeCenter (now the Sexual Trauma and Abuse Center), she focused on violence prevention and sexual assault awareness in local elementary, middle and high schools, as well as two universities, University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University. In partnership with the Lawrence Arts Center she developed theatre and film-based programs to explore social issues and produce projects by, for and about youth and the issues important to them.

She worked closely with local law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office on The InSight Project for youth on pre-file diversion for sex crimes. Juvenile attorneys referred adolescents in danger of receiving felony charges for sexting[ii] or harassment to her for drama therapy sessions to educate, enlighten and empower them to fully understand the impact of their actions. Then they created a Public Service Announcement (PSA) that expressed what they had learned. One of the PSAs they created on sexting can be accessed at:

She also worked with middle school students in tandem with the national tour of It Gets Better, a suicide prevention movement. After conducting 8 weekly sessions of drama activities, including role play, scenes, personal monologues, introspective writing, team building, and messaging, the students wrote, composed, and directed a PSA on rejecting bullying labels, which can be seen at:

Why a Drama Therapist and not a Drama Teacher?

If drama therapy works so well to educate students and change behavior, why not hire a drama teacher or an applied theatre professional experienced in improvisation, Playback Theatre, or Theatre of the Oppressed to implement an anti-bullying program? Because drama therapists are specifically trained to do this kind of self-exploration and socio-emotional training safely.

Holmwood and Stavrou (2012) wisely point out that

…teacher training and dramatherapy training are different in approach and

intention. Dramatherapy students are expected to develop an understanding of the self through personal therapy….Drama teachers are not. Drama therapists are equipped to allow the client to work with their internal emotional and psychological world. [Note from author: very pertinent when working on an issue like bullying] The teacher will use a curriculum to teach students to teach students to develop personal, social, and most importantly educational skills (35).

Educated in drama therapy techniques, psychology, and ethics, drama therapists understand how to keep dramatic explorations honest and effective on one hand and emotionally safe for the participants on the other. Holmwood and Stavrou (2012) add, “a good teacher will possess some therapeutic skills just as a good therapist has to be able to teach. However…being therapeutic does not make you a therapist” (34-35).

One of the big ways drama therapists create safety is through the use of emotional distance in dramatizations. For instance, to protect a student’s personal problems from becoming the subject of a scene, a bullying situation would be fictionalized, and the drama therapist would make sure that a real bully and victim were never cast against each other to work out their differences in real life in front of an audience. A scene that was too close to a real bullying incident could end up re-traumatizing the victim and reinforcing the power imbalance. The distance that fiction provides to a dramatic exploration allows students to open their minds to different solutions and even engage in meta-cognition, analysis, and ethical decision-making skills that can transfer to real-life dilemmas (Boggs, et al, 2007).

Distance can also be created through the use of a distancing technique within a method.  For instance, while a student might volunteer to tell her story in Playback Theatre, others act out the story, and many aspects of it are replayed through metaphor, so that it reflects her reality, but does not reproduce it. The teller safely watches her story from a distance and when those others show they understand her story and her feelings, the teller feels heard and validated.

As mentioned earlier, drama therapists are trained to de-role clients after a dramatic enactment and have a variety of methods that accomplish this. When intense emotions are evoked – even if they are from fictional situations – actors need to return to a neutral emotional state and re-connect with themselves. Not doing so could leave them in an emotional state that would preclude discussing the scene and learning from it. In addition, leaving a session still emotionally in the role of a fictional character could create confusion, acting out, and what might be called an “emotional hangover” in a later situation (Bailey & Dickinson, 2016).


Bullying can only be stopped if community witnesses stop being passive and begin to actively intervene. This might be done through a verbal recognition of the bullying act: I see what you are doing! It might be through reporting the bully to a person in authority who will step in and stop it. It might be through distracting the bully, supporting the victim, or through directly intervening in the situation. All of these choices and more can be learned and practiced through drama therapy, turning students into dynamic citizens who speak up for themselves and others.


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[i] De-roling is the process of taking off a role that an actor has been enrolled in. Actors and drama therapy participants should de-role after each role-play or scene, as well as at the end of a rehearsal so that they can leave the character they embodied behind and return to their own persona and mind-set. De-roling is one of the ethical techniques that drama therapists incorporate into their work that make it different from the work of other theatre educators (although drama therapists would love if all theatre educators and professionals began de-roling as a regular practice themselves!)

[ii] Sexting is when a person takes a nude photo of him or herself and sends it to another via the internet. It is illegal in Kansas for nude or pornographic photos of young people under 18 to be sent or received.