With the success of Hannah Montana and High School Musical, theater is suddenly hot. Your child may be showing interest in this year’s school play. But do you really want him to be an actor?

Gai Jones says, “Yes!” A theater educator with over forty years of experience, Jones' work has been recognized by the American Alliance for Theater and Education, the Educational Theater Association, and the California State Senate (among others).

According to Jones, “Theater addresses the skills which benefit children's education and development in five general areas: physical development/kinesthetic skills, artistic development /drama and theater skills, mental development/thinking skills, personal development/intra-personal skills, and social development/interpersonal skills.”

While many parents fear participation in drama will damage their child’s academic progress, a UCLA study concluded that students involved in the arts tend to have higher academic performance and better standardized test scores -- nearly 100 points better on the SAT, according to a separate study by The College Board.

Academic gains aren’t the only benefits. There are the obvious ones: improved self-confidence, better public speaking skills, but Jones says students show other gains as well, such as the “ability to work with an ensemble in cooperative ventures" and the "ability to work through consensus and differences or obstacles to achieve a goal.” She points out that a play requires students to follow a time line, to use self-discipline, and to accept feedback. Studying theater can be a great starting point for careers such as teaching, law, and politics, not to mention broadcasting and performing. And the ability to speak confidently in front of a group is a boon for any career.

If your child is interested in getting involved in theater, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Theater is not just for the outgoing. There are many ways for children to participate even if they’re afraid of the spotlight. Your child can play an ensemble role – a face in the crowd or a voice in chorus – which gives him stage time without the pressure. If she never, ever wants to be on stage, find out about backstage crew positions – building the sets, controlling the lights, managing the costumes. At many schools, there are tons of would-be actors, but never enough crew members, and without the crew, the actors would be lost!

Sometimes, disappointment can lead to growth. Not everyone can get a plum part in the school play. If your child comes home sad that he didn't get the role he wanted, encourage him to politely ask the director why. Most teachers will give specific, constructive suggestions. Learning to absorb and accept critique is a key life skill-- whether on the stage or off of it. Once your child is aware of where he needs improvement, help him make a plan to work on his weaknesses. Did your son talk too fast because he was nervous? Help him find opportunities to practice his public speaking. Did your daughter not know the song she was supposed to sing? Next time, get a copy of the script and score from the library or download the music online, and practice well before the audition. If your child knows the material well, she’ll give a better audition. And teaching her to come prepared is a valuable life skill.

Be prepared for a time commitment. A production is a lot of work, and your child will have to attend lots of rehearsals. Make room in your schedule – once your child is in the show, practice isn’t really an “optional” activity. Many parents think they can take their kids out early, drop them off late, or skip rehearsals entirely, which causes serious problems for the rest of the cast.

Keep your perspective – and help your child keep hers. On opening night, you'll have all eyes on your little star, even if she’s playing the second daisy from the left. But in reality, it’s not all about your child. One of drama’s greatest gifts is that it forces children to work together as a team, even if they don’t know or like each other. Your child needs to see herself as part of something bigger than herself, which means showing up for rehearsals even when she’d rather do something else, and being gracious to her “teammates” – especially if she’s the star of the show. Model that behavior: congratulate other students and their families, and encourage your child to think about what she can do for the cast, crew, or director. Writing notes or bringing in little treats before a performance or rehearsal can be a thoughtful gesture, especially from someone in a leading role.

Get involved. The typical drama teacher’s responsibilities would be divided between five or six different people in the professional theater world. Any help you offer will be greatly appreciated, whether you donate goods, build sets, sew costumes, or hand out programs during the performance. In many schools, the arts programs don’t get the “booster” support that sports do, so your contribution can really make a difference.

Advocate for theater education. Unfortunately, in today’s world of No Child Left Behind, arts programs can be one of the first things cut from the school budget. However, Jones emphasizes, “Theater is part of the core-curriculum with national standards and assessment tools.” If your school doesn't offer a program, talk to the administration about why, and ask whether you can do anything to help. Many schools lack the funds to support extracurriculars like drama; parent fundraising can make a big difference.

While school is a natural place to get your child's feet wet, don't be afraid to look elsewhere. “Check out community theaters nearby and college theater departments or professional companies with youth programs; check out summer camps," such as Camp Bravo or Stagedoor Manor, Jones says. Also, look into church youth groups or local performing arts groups for kids.

With a little research, you can find a place for your child to stretch her wings, and make all the world her stage. Hannah Montana, watch out!