Playing the Part

When we ask students to speak properly and respectfully, or to work together with people they would not normally choose to work with, what are we really teaching them? We sell it as being ‘skills’ students will need in the professional or collegiate world, but what does that mean to students? When we give this response, we are asking students to look into a future that is yet unfathomable to them and display behaviors that differ (sometimes drastically) from their home life. From this light, it is easy to understand why teachers are often met with resistance when teaching these skills.

So maybe we need a new way to look at this. What if we take this old goal of collegiate and/or professional success and make it more general? What if we treat this growth as learning to play a role?


This post looks at students and their development through the lense of role-play. Informed generalizations are made in order to illustrate concepts of role-play and how they appear in a student body. Some generalizations may not apply to different situations and/or lenses.

Defining Role-Play

It’s New Year’s Eve and you are going to a formal dinner party hosted by your significant other’s family. This party will be the first time you will be introduced to the family and you want to make a good impression. You clean up, put on a nice outfit, and adopt the best manners you can muster. When dinner is served, you carefully calculate how much you put on your plate, worrying about what the others might think if you put on as much as you REALLY wanted and there wasn’t enough left for everyone to have a fair amount. Dinner ends up being a success, and it was your ability to role-play that made it so.

In our lives, we play many different roles, each one ruled by certain social expectations as well as our own visions of how we would like to be perceived in a given situation. How we behave toward our spouses is different than how we would behave with our parents, children, or our bosses. Often, we are able to change our roles so quickly and seamlessly that we don’t even realize we are doing it. As we change our appearances and behaviors to ada pt to different situations, we are engaging in something called “role-play”.

What Determines our Role?

There are a great number of factors that determine what role we should play in a given situation, but most fall under one of two veins. The first is social expectations of how one should look and behave in a given situation and is mostly determined by the situation itself.. How we would dress and behave for that formal dinner party is vastly different from how we would behave at our best friend’s ugly sweater party. If we wore that ugly sweater and party hat to our New Year’s dinner or our formal attire to our friend’s party, we would be considered ridiculous and/or inappropriate because it does not match what the social expectations were for those events.


The second major theme in determining how we play a certain role is our own vision of how we would like to be perceived in that role. This is largely determined by our relationship with the people we would be interacting with in a given situation. In the dinner party scenario, we would be interacting with a group of new people (our significant other’s family) whom we want to like us. As a result, we adopt certain mannerisms that we know are generally admired by others but aren’t necessarily the kind we would use on a regular basis.In this case, we would like to be perceived as being kind, polite, and in all other ways a good match for our siginficant other in the eyes of their family members. As a result, we behave a certain way to accomplish this goal. If the dinner party example seems a little far-fetched, think to your own relationships and how you interact with your parents, boss, co-workers, children, etc. and you will likely realize how different they all are.

Students and Role-Play

Naturally, students (children/teenagers) experience role-play in their daily lives as well and can often navigate different roles quite successfully however, there is a notable difference between students and their adult counterparts. A lack of life experience and development makes separating and understanding these roles difficult for students and they can be somewhat clumsy as they try switching from one role to another. Sometimes, they fail to acknowledge the need to switch roles at all. This is not a criticism of students; role-play is a very complex skill that is developed over a lifetime and it is natural for young individuals to struggle with it. Though this struggle will occur, schools provide students the opportunity to practice and develop this skill.

Elementary Students (Ages 6-11)

Though all students are learning to recognize the many factors that determine their roles, their age effects where most of their growth occurs and schools reflect this type of growth. At the elementary level, the most growth occurs in recognizing social expectation (environmental) factors. Think to a time where you have been at a nice restaurant or on a train/bus/airplane and a family with a young child walks in and sits near you. You can’t help but cringe a little inside because you are unsure if the child will ‘behave’ or not. In other words, you are unsure if the child will play the proper role. This doubt is founded in the the inconsistencies we observe in the ability of different children to adapt to roles.


The challenge younger children face regarding role-play is figuring out when a role change needs to occur and what it means to adjust. In elementary schools, students are learning how to be students. In the younger grades, students spend the majority of their time learning academic content in one classroom with a single teacher. In this way, they are exposed to a single environment with a consistent set of rules to guide their behavior and teach them how to play the role of ‘student’. However, schools also pose these students with situational changes throughout the day that pushes them to learn and practice applying different sets of rules to different situations. How a student is expected to behave in the classroom is different from how they are expected to behave during recess. Likewise, there are behaviors that students are allowed to have during recess that are unacceptable during lunch or PE. What is most important to note here is that as these rules and expectations are changing, so is the students’ environment. Most days, recess and lunch are not in the academic classroom and even if lunch is held in a gym, the presence of tables differentiates it from PE or recess. An environmental change marks a clear change in ‘social expectation’ and allows students to practice adapting to changing expectations.

Secondary Students (Ages 12-18)

By the time students have reached the secondary level, they have mastered the ability to recognize and adapt to social expectations in different situations. It is at this time that students become more interested in the social aspects of school and more concerned about how others perceive them. Not only is the students’ awareness of others changing, their relationships are changing as well. In elementary school, teachers fell under the same ‘adult’ umbrella parents do and are regarded in a similar manner. However, as students begin to become more ‘adult’ themselves, the relationship between themselves and the ‘adults’ around them is becoming more complex. Teachers start to engage students in ways that differ immensely from how they interact with their parents and even their elementary school teachers. Respect is still demanded, but respect in this context is no longer synonymous with listening unquestioningly to everything you are told. Additionally, they must contend with a different teacher with different social inclinations for every subject. Though this adjustment is challenging for students, it pushes them to develop greater social finesse in order to achieve the same goal of success in every class.

The biggest challenge for teenage students is to avoid becoming solely fixated on how they want their friends to perceive them. Social groups are often the center of the teenage world and as a result, how your peers perceive you becomes a central focus. Though teenage students are able to pick up more subtle social cues and are more deliberate in the way they communicate with others, they often do so with one goal in mind. Once they have discovered how they would like to be perceived by their peers, they adopt the necessary persona and apply it to all situations, including interactions with parents. When the teen has become fixated on this persona, any critique of it is taken as an attack on their ‘individuality’.


Though the tendency for teens to be limited in the amount of ‘personas’ they adopt and their extremities can be challenging, it is understandable why this occurs. Until this stage in their development, the rules that guided the expectations for a given role were clear and often explained. Though the perspective of others has always mattered (requiring role-play to begin with), students have been largely unaware of it and have not realized their ability to influence it beyond following the rules. In the realm of social interaction, there are no clear-cut rules or guidelines and the process of changing behavior from one situation to the next is a lot more fluid. It is therefore understandable that young students try to attack their developing social personas in the same way they have been attacking their situational roles: one separate set of behaviors at a time. Since social circles are the central focus, that one set of behaviors defaults to what students wish their friends to see. However, as the student continues to grow and develop, they learn how to better adjust the social aspects of themselves as well.

Why Use This Lense?

The concept of role-play provides us with another lense with which we can analyze student interaction and growth in the classroom. The advantage of this lense is that it provides a positive way in which we can support students’ personal growth.


The main power of using this lense is that it provides an understandable and non-exclusive way to describe personal growth to students (and parents). When students question what and/or how they are learning, the same skills we would describe as being essential for college can be described as empowering students to play a professional role. This does not mean that other behaviors or topics students are more interested in are illegitimate, they just don’t fit that particular context. Wearing an ugly sweater to a formal dinner party may be frowned upon, but that does not mean an ugly sweater should never be worn. By explaining learning is this way, both the learning and the the way students see themselves outside of the classroom are legitimized.

I will end on a personal note. I have found the ‘role-play’ lense to be useful in my relationships with others who are of a different racial, social, ethnic, and/or religious background than myself, both inside and outside of the classroom. These backgrounds may influence how we approach certain roles, yet the need to play them can serve as a common ground. If connection with students is something that is proving a struggle, I have found that finding a roles you could share is a good place to start.

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