For some children, being a social butterfly on the playground and in other social settings is something they don't have to think twice about. But for those with anxiety, ADHD or autism, immersion in interactive activities is an everyday struggle.
So, when Shawn Amador — an outgoing youth therapist and social worker — began incorporating theatrical activities into her group sessions and classrooms and witnessed dramatic improvements with the children, she knew she was on to something.
Over the last 18 years, the Brookfield resident has developed a program alongside her students in which she teaches social skills through sketch comedy and improv.
A motto Amador has used as a theme for her program, dubbed Social Theatre, is "just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," the Mary Poppins song lyric suggesting that when humor is added to therapy, children will be more open to understanding social cues and become excited about learning new social skills.
"When we sit kids at a desk to learn social skills, they aren't always practicing," Amador said. "In Social Theatre, we are practicing socialization in real time."
What originally got Amador interested in using improv as a means to teach social skills developed from her background of learning clowning from attending music, arts and drama camps as a child.
"Being in junior high, everyone's awkward, right? So, I just found it really awesome that this was a great platform for me personally to connect with other kids and use humor," Amador said. "Everything was accepted and we came up with some really funny stuff, so I took that and I utilized it to start programs at my school [and then] we changed it into improv and sketch comedy."
Both in the schools she teaches at near Midway Airport and in private practice in Lisle, Amador's therapy includes teaching children how to improvise and write plays about dealing with problems in social settings, including interactions with strangers, bullying and trying to fit in.
Social Theatre takes place in group therapy settings, where children are led through a collaborative writing process at the appropriate pace for them, with skits including social emotions concepts from other therapy programs and cognitive behavioral therapy. Parent briefings follow her programs, where Amador discusses the meaning behind the activity and provides options for weekly family assignments.
Amador said theater games are starting to become more widely used in group psychotherapy and that her sketch comedy program has really helped kids truly learn to be themselves.
"It really does help kids to know how to work together and how to build on each others' ideas because they have a hard time dealing with that," she said.
In some instances, the children Amador works with have also taken a strong liking to acting. Amador and her students have taken their performances to other suburbs schools, park districts and even performances during Brookfield Zoo's Holiday Magic.
And, due to the success of Amador's social theater programs, she decided to gather her best lesson plans, observations and student-written programs and compile them into a book, "Teaching Social Skills through Sketch Comedy and Improv Games."
The book, which was just published in the last few weeks, is something Amador believes is a first in her line of work.
"There's a bunch of other programs that teach social skills through improvisational theater, which we do too, but we add sketch comedy and collaborative writing," she said. "[With Social Theatre], we write our own plays together."
Amador's book talks about the scriptwriting process and includes lessons from her program that can be incorporated and adapted by others. While the book took her six months to write, it includes collections of plays and lessons written up over the last two decades.
"The participants in my programs really wanted their voices to be heard," she said of using her students' examples.
Overall, Amador said the reception to her unique program has been positive from both parents and children.
"I've had parents tell me their kids have come out of their shell and that they feel like they can be themselves, and a lot of the kids I've worked with have become more flexible in learning how to accept others' ideas," she said.
Amador's academic credentials include a bachelor's in psychology from North Central College, a master's in social work from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a master's in educational leadership from Northeastern Illinois University.
For more information about her program and to purchase her book, visit socialtheatreblog.wordpress.com.