Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development

pp 1278-1279


  • David HackettAffiliated withDepartment of Clinical Psychology, Argosy University


Behavior rehearsal; Psychodrama


Role-playing is a technique, most often utilized in psychotherapy and skills training, whereby the child is instructed to reenact a response encountered in a specified situation. Widely used in the assessment and treatment of maladaptive behaviors characteristic of childhood disorders, the use of role-play provides an efficient means of sampling the child’s behavioral skills and/or deficits [3, 2].



Role-playing is a relatively nonthreatening technique used as a means of assessment, intervention, and engagement of children in psychotherapy. In general, due to the indirect and contrived nature of this technique, role-play can be used as an effective substitute to traditional “talk therapies,” particularly with those children who present as suspicious, guarded, fearful, or depressed as it provides a mode of interaction wherein the child is partially removed from that which he or she may be avoiding; dolls or puppets can also be used to further “remove” the child from direct involvement [1, 4]. Role-playing provides an opportunity for the child to act out a problematic behavior while serving as a performance base for later interventions [3]. A typical role-play involves at least two individuals engaged in the reenactment of a given scenario, either hypothetical or real. Ideally, the role plays should be as realistic as possible so as to evoke the feelings associated with the identified problematic situation. In the case in which the therapist is playing an individual known to the child (e.g., a teacher, parent, or friend), relevant information about that character, such as examples of what that individual might say, mannerisms they may use, or how they typically react would need to be gathered through systematic questioning in order to provide information about that individual as well as to enhance the realistic quality of the interaction [2]. Role-play, as a therapeutic tool, provides valuable insight as to how the child views his or her environment, as well as the dynamic interplay between the environment and the child. Furthermore, role-playing can provide a wealth of information about the nature and quality of the child’s interpersonal functioning [4, 2]. As an experiential technique, role-playing is often used in the treatment of trauma whereby affective states related to a trauma are aroused so that the child is able to reinterpret an earlier, traumatic experience through reenactment [1, 4].

Skills Training

Role-playing is commonly used in skills training to improve assertiveness, anxiety, social skills, aggression, and other interpersonal difficulties. Role-playing is a technique typically employed in behavioral and cognitive-behavioral interventions to treat dysfunctional and maladaptive behaviors exhibited by children with clinically significant behavioral difficulties that impair one or more domains of functioning [4]. Thus, interventions that typically employ role-playing, within the realm of skills training, may involve for example, teaching socially phobic children how to interact in social or performance-based situations that invoke considerable distress. Role-playing is used to simulate problematic social. Typically in these sessions a deficit in some domain of functioning is identified and role-playing is often indicated to remediate such deficits. In this setting, adaptive behaviors are rehearsed through role play with the therapist acting as both teacher and model. This allows the therapist to monitor the child’s performance while offering immediate corrective feedback [1, 3].

Relevance to Childhood Development

Psychotherapy with children differs from adult psychotherapy as children typically lack the cognitive abilities to comprehend and assimilate that which is primarily language oriented [4]. Following a Piagetian model of cognitive development, a child whose cognitive capacities are characterized by the concrete operations stage cannot yet engage in metacognition. As such, it is likely that children in this stage of cognitive development struggle with the expression of emotional concepts. Often a child may have difficulty expressing his own feeling states, yet he is able to talk of them when speaking in the third person. For these reasons, role-playing is often used within the context of psychotherapy with children [2, 4].

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
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