Shakespeare RX: Using Shakespeare as Therapy for Attention-Deficit Disorders in Children

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Grasping the attention of today’s children is an increasing frustration for teachers today. As more and more children are constantly exposed to a steady stream of quickly-changing images from a very early age, conditions are ripe to breed increasing problems with focus and attention. Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are becoming more prevalent afflictions for today’s learners.

Although attention-deficit disorders are on the rise, they are not entirely a new phenomenon. While the modern medical condition we classify as ADHD was defined in the mid 20th century, researchers believe that references to the condition have been made throughout history. In 493 BC, physician and scientist Hippocrates referred to a similar condition describing a patient who had “quickened responses to sensory experience, but also less tenaciousness because the soul moves on quickly to the next impression”.

Shakespeare also may have been aware of the condition, which the character of Falstaff in King Henry IV Part 2 may be referring to when he describes himself as having “the disease of not listening, the malady of not marking” (Act I, Scene ii).

As an elementary teacher of English Language Learner (ELL) students, I have found Shakespeare to be the perfect prescription to allow students with attention-deficit disorders and excess hyperactivity to draw focus and channel their energy.

Most children are natural-born actors. With little inhibitions and no fear of judgment, rejection, or acceptance, children allow themselves fully to inhabit a character. The introduction of drama in the language classroom is a natural extension for any language arts curriculum. While many young children struggle to check for meaning while reading aloud or to read with expression, drama allows students physically to embody the text. Shakespeare’s complex plots and unique characters are naturally engaging for children.

I have found that ELL students can sometimes be more receptive to tackling Shakespeare than their native English-speaking peers. Many of the students I teach have no background knowledge of Shakespeare; therefore, they are not intimidated by his literary canon or unfamiliar language.

Attention-deficit disorders do not discriminate among cultures. While the population of students that I serve is already faced with the challenge of assimilating to a new culture and language, many of them are also dually-identified as having speech and learning disabilities, autism, and attention-deficit disorders. While dramatic activities can be engaging for all learners, I have found my attention-challenged students to be the most receptive to Shakespeare. Teachers of students with attention-deficit disorders often complain that these students cannot sit still, are easily distracted, and lack the focus to complete assignments. In a traditional classroom setting, these concerns may be valid. However, I have found that students with attention-deficit disorders are minimally impacted by their learning challenges when they are allowed to shine on the stage.

Performance-based study of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets immediately gets students up on their feet, giving those with a case of the wiggles a valid reason to be out of their seats. The action and immediacy of staging scenes can easily stimulate the quick-moving mind of a child with ADD or ADHD, while the challenge of memorizing and performing lines of text allows them to take ownership of their learning and feel a sense of accomplishment as they move Shakespeare from the page to the stage.

While some teachers may consider medication to be a solution to the learning problems associated with attention-deficit disorders, I encourage them to consider modifying their instructional methods, allowing these unique students to truly shine through a positive first encounter with Shakespeare.

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Author:Holly Rodgers

Holly Rodgers is an educator, musician, and writer in the greater Washington DC area that has worked collaboratively with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC to design lesson plans to promote the use of Shakespeare's works with English language learners. She has over a decade of experience in the field of education working as a band director, ESL teacher, presenter, and curriculum developer and is the founder of teachingtolkien.com, a blog designed as an education resource for teachers wishing to share the works of J.R.R. Tolkien with their students. Holly has presented at the Folger Shakespeare Library Elementary Educators Conference and their webinar and teacher-to-teacher technology sessions. Her elementary ESL students performed at the Folger in 2010 for the Emily Jordan Folger Children's Shakespeare Festival and were featured on the Verizon cable television program Push Pause. Holly has also presented her work with Shakespeare and English Language Learner (ELL) students at the WATESOL (Washington Area Teachers of ESOL), KYTESOL (Kentucky Teachers of ESOL), and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conventions and her work with Tolkien and ELL students at Mythcon, the conference of The Mythopoeic Society. Follow Holly on Twitter @hmrodgers

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