Emotional development in adolescence: What can be learned from a high school theater program?

Larson, R., & Brown, J. (2007). Emotional development in adolescence: What can be learned from a high school theater program? Child Development, 78(4), 1083-1099.


Grounded-theory analyses were used to formulate propositions regarding the processes of adolescent emotional development. Progress in understanding this difficult topic requires close examination of emotional experience in context, and to do this the authors drew on qualitative data collected over the course of a high school theater production. Participants’ (ages 14-17) accounts of experiences in this setting demonstrated their capacity to actively extract emotional knowledge and to develop strategies for managing emotions. These accounts suggested that youth’s repeated “hot” experience of unfolding emotional episodes in the setting provided material for this active process of learning. Youth also learned by drawing on and internalizing the emotion culture of the setting, which provided concepts, strategies, and tools for managing emotional episodes.

Key Findings:

Adolescents are agents in their emotional development. Under beneficial conditions, such as the theater production environment of this study, adolescents can be capable producers of their own emotional development. Students in Les Misérables described exercising executive control at two levels. At the first level, they learned conscious strategies to use in response to emotions in themselves, others, and the group. At the second, meta level, they described themselves as agents in the process of acquiring these strategies. They compared emotions across people and situations and arrived at conclusions about how various emotions unfolded and how to handle them.

The students’ active processes occur in response to the set of “hot” emotional episodes in a setting. Les Misérables appeared to be a beneficial context for emotional development because it provided a fairly safe and predictable matrix of repeated emotional episodes (hot emotions). Emotional experiences ranging from an “adrenaline rush” from doing well, to episodes of stress, anger and frustration were valuable to students in learning to understand and manage emotions.

Students developed abilities to understand and manage emotions in part by drawing on the emotional culture of the setting. The emotional culture of Les Misérables appeared to be important to the student’s development, first because it functioned to ensure that most episodes of strong emotions led to favorable outcomes. The ethos cultivated by the leaders, supported by parents, and shared by peers helped ensure that positive emotions were encouraged, anger was defused, and egotistical pride contained, thus creating an emotionally positive and safe environment favorable to emotional learning. This culture also facilitated the developmental process through the student’s internalization of the emotional tools it provided. The adult leaders modeled positive emotional management and coached students in care, respect, and openness to emotions in themselves and each other. The students adopted these ways of thinking, feeling, and acting from the program culture.

Significance of the Findings:

This investigation provides a useful demonstration of the importance of the process of theater as a setting for emotional development. It provides preliminary ideas about how theater can be an active process in which adolescents learn through conscious observation and management of emotional episodes within the context of affordances and tools provided by their participation in the play production.


The aim of this study was to develop preliminary propositions regarding processes of adolescents’ emotional development in relationship to the ongoing demands, culture, and experiences of a theater program by collecting qualitative data on students experiences as they prepared for a high school production of Les Misérables.

A sample of ten actors from the cast of 110 actors and crew were chosen by their teacher to participate in the study. The students reflected the ethnic homogeneity of the small Midwestern community and school. The researchers conducted extensive interviews and weekly observations throughout the play-making process. The ten students, along with parents, adult staff and teachers were interviewed at the beginning, middle, and end of the production schedule. An additional follow up interview was conducted with nine of the students two years after the production.

The researchers’ qualitative analyses of the data drew on procedures of grounded theory aimed at identifying themes, patterns, structure, and processes from narrative data. The researchers’ process went from empirical analyses to theoretical postulation, hence the conclusions should be understood not as research findings but as empirically grounded hypotheses.

Limitations of the Research:

This case study was framed using grounded theory so the researchers assert the findings to be empirically grounded hypotheses only. Further research would be helpful in illuminating the relationship between emotional learning and theater.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Further research is needed with more diverse youth to evaluate the developmental emotional processes in theater settings. Comparative and longitudinal research could also be helpful in evaluating the role of individual differences (attachment histories, cultural backgrounds, and developmental levels), diverse settings, emotional patterns and culture, community context variables and adult leadership styles in mediating and moderating students’ acquisition of emotional knowledge and management styles.