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Teens Are Transformed By Learning How To Stand Up For Others - Public Health Educator John Martin Applies Improvisation To The Problem of Bullying

    The American Journal of Psychiatry recently published one of the first long-term studies of the impact of bullying which - unsurprisingly - found it to have serious consequences well into adult life. Individuals at age 50 who were targets of this kind of aggression in childhood had measurable deficits to physical, psychological and cognitive health. They were also at increased risk of depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal thoughts, lower educational levels, longer periods of unemployment, lower overall earnings and lower quality of life and life satisfaction. And despite increased awareness about the prevalence and power of this problem, a 2014 report published by the Hazelden Foundation described bullying as "one of the most pressing issue facing our nation's youth." 
     A culture in which this kind of social aggression is both common and countenanced can
Senior Public Health Educator John Martin -
he will be a featured storyteller in the Feb 28 performance
of (mostly) TRUE THINGS

Article by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
be changed, but it requires a focused effort to raise the emotional intelligence within a community. Senior Public Health Educator John 
Martin's ground-breaking program "Healthy Communication and Bullying Prevention; A Peer Education program for secondary students" does just that using an innovative, arts-based approach that has students lining up to participate. He uses applied improvisation - with its emphasis on collaboration, building social connections and group games - to train students' emotional intelligence and foster skills they can deploy in difficult situations. "It is an 8-10 week program that trains students to be 'upstanders' - individuals who know what to say and how to say it when they see someone being targeted by aggression," Martin explains.  "Peer educators are not asked to take on a bully, they are trained to inspire bystanders into action. Bullying is a group phenomenon. The solution must also be a group phenomenon. I train those groups." 


     Because the common denominator of all types of aggressive behavior is the lack or erosion of empathy, experiences that strengthen empathy as a skill and create an atmosphere in which it can flourish are at the heart of effective efforts to reduce aggressive targeting. The Suffolk County program utilizes applied improvisation and expressive art forms like storytelling to forge connections to the emotional experiences of others while providing user-friendly tools for communication and assertiveness
The concept is grounded in empathy. Of the students who show up for this training in the 33 school districts that are involved so far, "all have been targeted by aggression, and most or all have been the aggressor in the past," Martin reports. "So, as someone that comes in to their school, and without judgement, accepts all students with desire, passion and commitment to start positive ripple effects in their hallways, I have great reception."
    If the heart of the program is empathy and emotional intelligence the "muscle" is exercising one's choice about how to respond to the behavior of others. Citing Viktor Frankl's quote "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom" Martin emphasizes that this "power of the pause," can be learned. ""The pause between aggression and response can be developed and practiced so that the freedom to escape being targeted becomes automatic." Applied Improvisation offers a unique combination of structure - the rules of the game, the agreements that make a creative exercise interesting and challenging - and inventiveness through which new behaviors can be practiced. Improvisation is a group experience, the success of which turns on everyone's awareness of and willingness to collaborate with others. This cultivates the creative confidence to think and behave in new ways when the pressure is on and the stakes are high. There is no more persuasive experience than contributing to a process we do not control - which is the essence of improvisation - to demonstrate the power of choices in our interactions with others.
   The rapid expansion and effectiveness of this program can be seen in the lives that are changed by it. "When students are transformed, their paths are changed drastically," Martin states. "They tell us, they show us, they keep signing up and bringing their friends. When parents give us feedback about how their son or daughter has come home in a way they had not ever seen, when students look forward to coming because the group is waiting for them, that is data showing this is working."

More resources: www.suffolkstopbullying.org includes links to all New York State Dignity Act Coordinators, LGBT and suicide prevention and training resources and is a one-stop shop for all things bullying/agression.

Read more about the New York State Dignity Act

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She hosts and created (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a storytelling show with a twist, and facilitates applied improvisation workshops at Lifestage, Inc and at conferences and organizations around the country. Follow her on Twitter @JuTrWolff







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