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Skills for Educators

All Skills for Educators

Role Play for Behavioral Practice

This article is divided into the following sections:

  • an introduction to role play

  • a description of the instructional strategy and its components,

  • tips for using the strategy effectively,

  • a sample lesson that illustrates the strategy in practice, and

  • a sample observer checklist.

Note: Links on this page with the Portable Document Format icon require Adobe Acrobat Reader to view and print them. You can download this free software at:
http://www.adobe .com/prodindex/acrobat/readstep.html.


Using role play for behavioral practice has become a favorite strategy of curriculum developers. However, it is often less enthusiastically embraced by educators. Educators often feel uncomfortable with this instructional strategy because of past negative experiences and/or because they need classroom management strategies that:

  • minimize the noise and confusion that accompany role play practice,

  • keep youth on task as they practice in small groups,

  • assure that every student has a chance to practice and receive feedback, and

  • assure that youth are practicing the skills effectively during the role play enactment.

Once educators learn the strategies and skills to address these concerns, they usually embrace role play as an effective, useful instructional strategy for behavioral practice. The following description, sample lesson and tips provide a model that has been effective in implementing this strategy.


Role play for behavioral practice is a teaching strategy that allows youth to practice a variety of communication skills by acting out real life situations in a safe environment like a classroom or youth group. In order to assure that youth learn the skill effectively, the behavioral practice should include several phases.

Phase One: Preparation

Prior to the behavioral practice, the educator and youth need to identify the scenarios that will be used for the skill practice. Youth can make up the scenarios or the educator can use ones found in already published curriculum like those described in the Evidence-Based Programs section.

Phase Two: Reviewing the Skill

If several days have passed since youth have seen the skill demonstrated, have several volunteers review the essential elements of the skills and offer a demonstration.

Phase Three: Preparing Small Groups

Divide youth into small groups of three to four. Then have small group members decide who will practice the skill in the first, second, third, etc. Round of the role play. Finally, prepare youth to be observers of each other's skill practice. We recommend that observers use an Observer Checklist . The Observer Checklist should list the essential characteristics of the skill being practiced and can be used to provide feedback once each youth has practiced the skill. Be sure that the characteristics are observable behaviors like; says the word "no," uses words that build the relationship, etc.

Phase Four: Enactment in Small Groups

Once youth begin to practice in their small groups, the educator should walk around the room observing them to assure they are practicing the skill correctly. S/he may also provide coaching as appropriate. In addition, the educator should time each practice round, telling students when to move on to the next person. Timing assures that all students get a chance to practice and get feedback.

Phase Five: Small Group Discussion

After each role play, instruct youth to discuss how it felt to practice the skill and to identify what they did well and what they would change next time they used the skill. Have observers use the checklist to give feedback to their peers on the skill practice.

Phase Six: Large Group Discussion

After the small groups have completed their practice, reconvene the whole group and lead a discussion using the following questions:

  1. What feelings did you experience as you used the skill?

  2. What words or behaviors made the skill effective? What took away from the effectiveness?

  3. How were the role plays similar or not similar to real life?

  4. Where there any barriers to using the skill? E.g., strong, aggressive behavior from the other role player, etc. Help youth identify ways to overcome any barriers that are identified.

  5. In what ways or situations might you use the skill in the next week or two?

See sample lesson for teaching student refusal skills.



To maximize your effectiveness in using role play for behavioral practice, we recommend that:
  • Prior to the behavioral practice, make sure the group or class has established basic ground rules including listening to others, no put downs, right to pass, confidentiality, etc.

  • Involve youth in the development of role play scenarios so the role plays are relevant to their lives.

  • Ask for volunteers to demonstrate the skill prior to the beginning of the practice lesson. This allows the volunteers to do a little preparation.

  • During the initial practicing of a skill, it is helpful to have youth read a scripted role play or write out the words they will use to practice the skill before they begin. Once youth have practiced the skill several times, they can omit this step.

  • If possible, make sure each small group has both genders. Mixing genders is important because youth may have trouble practicing with the same sex if scenarios involve saying no to or communicating about sexual situations.

  • Use sets of instructional cards for each small group to help keep them on task. For example, sets should include one card for each of the following: Role Player #1, Role Player #2, Observer #1, Observer #2 with Small Group Discussion Questions written on the back (see Phase 5).

  • Use props to help youth get into the role plays. For example, clothing, an old couch, chairs facing back to back if it is a phone conversation etc. help youth be more comfortable "play acting." Props also make the role play fun.

  • Have the instructions for the small group practice written on the blackboard or newsprint so the small groups can refer to them if they get stuck.

  • Decide on a method to indicate when youth should switch roles during the practice. For example, you could ring a bell, flick the lights, appoint a time keeper in each group, etc.

  • If the whole group is small (10 or less), this five-phase process can be used in one large group instead of small groups. If you are doing practice in one large group, have youth who aren't role playing act as observers. Be sure that everyone gets a chance to practice the skill.