Call Keland Scher a clown and he’ll consider it a compliment. Accuse him of clowning around in the classroom and you’ll be technically accurate. Scher, a master’s degree candidate in occupational therapy set to graduate this May, wholeheartedly embraces the art of play.
Scher’s educational background and life experience are a bit different compared to the majority of students in the School of Medicine’s Program in Occupational Therapy. Before coming to Washington University, he earned a diploma from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Florida and, after graduation, “rode the rails” for a year performing. He also worked for five years with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care unit in hospitals, nursing homes and camps for children with life-threatening illnesses.
In addition to his clowning credentials, Scher also holds a bachelors of fine arts in theatre from Miami of Ohio University and a masters of fine arts and a teaching of movement for actors’ diploma from York University in Toronto. He had planned a career as an actor and teacher. But while teaching a movement for performance class to students at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Scher realized he cared more about the classes that were physically benefiting students than how they could integrate those movements into the characters they portrayed.
“I knew I wanted to find a therapeutic container for all the work I was doing,” says Scher. “That’s when I came upon an article in the Australian Occupational Therapy Journal and realized that occupational therapy would fit the bill.”
He applied to several schools, but quickly chose the Program in Occupational Therapy at Washington University due to its science-based nature and high ranking.
Once in St. Louis, Scher knew he’d made the right decision.
“The faculty has been supportive by allowing me to take my skill as a teacher and circus artist into research,” he says.
Scher recently completed a study involving participants from Central Institute for the Deaf (CID), with Meredith Gronski, OTD, OTR/L, serving as his mentor. “Dr. Gronski opened up her research lab to circus arts,” Scher says. “It takes a trusting soul in a medical school to allow this.”
“I enjoy empowering others through physical and vocal expression, helping them to grow, change and transform. Occupational therapy in tandem with circus arts has the potential to be a powerful combination.”
—Keland Scher, MSOT ‘13
According to Scher, previous research has shown that children who are deaf or hard of hearing have difficulty with basic communication skills such as collaboration or social participation. Scher developed a 10-week course to determine how using circus arts as an intervention could help these children to improve their social skills, tapping into their motivation and encouraging self-efficacy.
Working mainly with eight- to 12-year-olds, Scher set about teaching the children how to juggle, spin plates, walk and balance on a giant ball, and work together to build a pyramid. The study culminated with a 40-minute performance for the participants’ parents and teachers.
“Keland came to the Program in Occupational Therapy with a passion for circus arts,” says Gronski. “He knew from his experiences that they have tremendous therapeutic value — he just needed an avenue to prove it. When he approached me with this idea, I was admittedly hesitant. It was ‘outside the box’ of the intervention I currently provide at CID. However, the collaboration could not have had better results.”
Scher presented his research findings at the program’s annual scholarship day and at the American Occupational Therapy Association’s annual meeting held in April.
Among the qualitative results were teachers’ comments, which suggest that the children who participated grew in confidence. One teacher noted “…[the children] were very proud of themselves ... and they learned that dropping a ball meant another opportunity to try again, not failure.”
Scher considers himself fortunate to be able to bring his experience in teaching and his passion for circus arts together while at Washington University, while Gronski considers the program fortunate for Scher’s innovative thinking.
“Children who are deaf and hard of hearing often transition into public educational arenas with hearing peers,” says Scher. “The more opportunities they have for social interactions that foster trust, mutual respect and positive risk-taking, the better equipped they will be to succeed.”
Gronski agrees. “Not only did Keland foster these skills in the children at CID, but he really is pushing the field of occupational therapy forward. And accommodating hisproject exemplifies the Program in Occupational Therapy’s commitment to innovative practice.”