By Heather Meeker

In The Wizard of Oz, the great and powerful title character commands: “You must prove yourselves worthy by performing a very small task. Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West.”

Securing that broom was no small feat for Dorothy and her friends—and the evidence was critical to their success.

As TMTP piloted Kids Love Musicals! in special education classrooms last year with curriculum based on the 1939 classic movie musical, we knew evidence was key to demonstrating the program’s benefit. In surveys, teachers expressed awe at individual student accomplishments. Yet how could we objectively measure the intangible effects of theater-based education in each classroom or school, especially in a population of students with a considerable range of complex learning challenges and delays?

Like Dorothy, we made new friends and journeyed together. Through a unique community-university research partnership with Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies, a contract with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts VSA Program, and support from The John P. Murphy Foundation, Martha Holden Jennings Foundation and generous individuals, we have evidence from our study that musical theater can be an exceptionally effective classroom tool.

KLM Pic3So what does the study measure? Pretending is a vital tool for social and emotional learning (SEL), which gives us the ability to understand and manage emotions, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions. These are all precursors to successful learning in school.

For special education students, however, these skills may be significantly delayed or absent. This is especially true for students on the autism spectrum. Theater-based education provides a safe and supportive environment to practice these skills, using methodologies that are both motivating and fun.

Under the direction of Schubert Center director Jill Korbin, CWRU Professor of Psychology Sandra Russ and psychology graduate student Olena Zyga created specific measures tied to SEL outcomes, such as eye contact, turn-taking, engagement and emotional understanding. After observing and analyzing more than 70 hours of instruction by TMTP teaching artists, data showed statistically significant improvement in each and every measure included in the study.

“We’re excited to partner with TMTP on this project,” says Russ. “In addition to providing first-class independent program evaluation to a local nonprofit, the study gives our graduate and undergraduate psychology students an opportunity to develop their own skills in child assessment.”

The results not only validate TMTP’s approach; they also give staff diagnostic knowledge that drives further curriculum design and development. “Knowing what works is essential to creating teaching tools that we can adapt across multiple classroom environments from school to school,” says TMTP curriculum specialist Jodi Kirk. “This is a tailor-made and locally sourced research study that represents front-line arts education research with national significance.”


  • Eye contact: ability to engage in proper eye contact with either teachers or other students
  • Turn-taking, Sharing and Cooperative Learning: ability to take turns with students and/or teachers along with being able to interact with the group and engage in group learning
  • Engagement: level that a student engages in the overall lesson and with those around them
  • Social Awareness and Self-Confidence: ability to show confidence and the understanding that our actions effect the events occurring around us
  • Symbolic Flexibility:  ability to show flexibility in thought and behaviors through imagination, creativity, or pretending—along with moving away from rigid tendencies and developing a more flexible way of interacting with others
  • Emotional Understanding:  ability to correctly express and identify emotions and to understand the emotions of others