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Changing Mindsets: Creative Strategies Through Applied Improvisation workshop hand-out

by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
The greatest gifts we can give students and clients:

  • love of learning
  • love of challenge 
  • the ability to thrive on obstacles

Shifts in mindset determine how we respond to setbacks. 

Improvisation is always something new, it "stretches" our abilities and cultivates thinking skills while building social bonds that strengthen group members' connection to one another.

MINDSET is the frame through which we view our successes, mistakes, fears, and triumphs and plays a key role in our capacity to learn and change. In Mindset: The New Psychology of SuccessStanford University researcher Carol Dweck writes that mind sets are powerful driver of perceptions about self and others as well as one’s capabilities and place in the world. "Mindsets frame the running account that's taking place in peoples' heads," she states. "They guide the whole interpretation process." Dr. Dweck's work identifies 2 distinctly different mindsets that have the greatest implications to successful learning and change over the lifespan, the "Growth mindset" and the "Fixed mindset." 

The Fixed mindset holds that our intelligence, talent and ability to change are fixed, and there is nothing we can do to expand them. Because of this perspective that our potentials are predetermined, failure and mistakes are viewed as very discouraging signs that we are inadequate, unlucky or just not cut out for success. 
The Growth mindset holds that our intelligence, raw talent and potential are just a starting point, and and we can continue to develop them through learning and experiences. This perspective views failures and mistakes as proof that we are moving beyond what is safe and known, trying out new information and developing skills that require practice and diligence. We can achieve emotional, psychological and cognitive growth that results in enhanced stress resilience, greater overall well-being but even more remarkably, heightened intelligence. 

Changing mindsets can be understood as a process that integrates:
BELIEF: "I will do whatever it takes to learn this material" or "Creative thinking is a skill that I can develop"" or, in the fixed mindset: "If I'm not good at something I shouldn't do it" or People in my family are unlucky."

BELONGING: a sense of our place in the world, the ability to make and sustain social relationships and handle ourselves in the environments we must navigate. Researchers David Yeager and George Walton at Stanford University - worked with University of Texas researcher David Laude to develop interventions for high-achieving students who were at risk of dropping out because they struggled with some aspects of the school's social world. They write that "seemingly 'small' social-psychological interventions in education-that is, brief exercises that target students' thoughts, feelings and beliefs in and about school-can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later. The interventions do not teach students academic content but instead target students' psychology, such as their beliefs that they have the potential to improve their intelligence or that they belong and are valued in school." read "Mindset: The Template For Successful Learning and Change" on this blog

BRAIN PLASTICITY: When we understand the way the brain works, we no longer connect our self-worth to whether things are easy or hard, or the discomfort of learning someting new; We can give our brain a work-out by stretching our abilities and pushing ourselves to reach for goals that take us beyond our comfort zone, and develop the capacity to take on adversity and challenges as learning opportunities.

"Rather than think of the brain as a static organ, or one that just degenerates with age, it's better understood as an organ that is constantly reshaping itself, is being continuously influenced, wittingly or not, by the forces around us. We can take responsibility for our own brains. They are not pawns to external influences; we can be more pro-active in shaping the positive influences on the brain." Richard Dawson, author of "The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect The Way You Think, Feel and Live- and how you can change them

ABSTRACT: Experiential factors shape the neural circuits underlying social and emotional behavior from the prenatal period to the end of life. These factors include both incidental influences, such as
early adversity, and intentional influences that can be produced in humans through specific interventions designed to promote prosocial behavior and well-being. Here we review important extant evidence in animal models and humans. Although the precise mechanisms of plasticity are still not fully understood, moderate to severe stress appears to increase the growth of several sectors of the amygdala, whereas the effects in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex tend to be opposite. Structural and functional changes in the brain have been observed with cognitive therapy and certain forms of meditation and lead to the suggestion that well-being and other prosocial characteristics might be enhanced through training
"Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being" Richard J Dawson and Bruce S McEwen, Nature Neuroscience, 15 April 2012

NEUROPLASTICITY (National Institutes of Health): "Based on experiments in animals and humans over the past 20 years, researchers established that the cortex, which is the dominant feature of the human brain, has significant plasticity―the ability to reconfigure its functional organization as the result of experience, such as training.
This is supported in animal experiments where a number of physiological changes are observed in response to behavioral training. These include changes in the size and shape of brain regions, speeding up and/or slowing down of neuron signaling, increases in the molecules that help transmit signals through the brain, and the growth of new neurons."
FAILURE BOW: Each person takes the space at the center of the circle or the front of the room, then share a fictional mistake or failure with great pride, e.g. "I forgot it was my friend's birthday and asked her to help me move. She was so upset that I didn't do anything special for her AND that I expected her to help me do something she absolutely hates. I didn't care at all and said she should just get over it." Once the mistake/failure story is complete, the group responds with enthusiastic applause and approval. You can read more about this (and other) games in this article "10 Improv Games To Develop Courage, Compassion and Creativity" on the AnimaLearning blog by my friend and colleague Ted DesMaisons who does wonderful work using Applied Improvisation and mindfulness. Here is something from his blog on this exercise: Insider Tips:
  • "Make sure to explain why you’re playing this game before you play it or to debrief it afterward: we’re trying to create a new relationship to what we think of as failure. When we fail, it often means we’re pushing ourselves to develop new skills. It means we’re taking risks. And our so-called ‘failures’ can lead us to possibilities we never would have imagined. That’s all worth celebrating.
  • Again, emphasize that the failures should be made up once the person gets to the stage. You don’t want to initiate a therapy session here.
  • Often times, kids will shrink from the applause and will want to take a quick bow and run off stage. The whole point is to soak it in. What would it be like if we celebrated our failures?"
PORTKEY - Ted DesMaisons writes about the origin of the name of this exercise in his blog post "Return of Spontaneity School: A Third Set Of Improv Games For The Classroom and Work Enviroment"
  • Enhance the sense of belonging within the group;
  • Create emotional and social connections within group members;
  • Increase knowledge about moments in each participant's life;
"The game’s name traces back to the Harry Potter books where a portkey was an everyday object that, when touched by wizards, would transport them away from the Muggle world off to Hogwarts or some other location in the wizarding world."

The group sits in a circle, and player #1 gets a suggestion for an everyday object, e.g. Towel. Player #1 begins to share a story arising from the word, starting with the image it inspires, e.g. "Towel takes me to a day at the beach with my little sister..." and finishing the story with an object that is then offered to the next person: "and we took the seashells into the house and put them in a vase with flowers. So I give you a vase." 


  • Practice active listening and attention to the present moment;
  • Practice receiving nonverbal offers and taking responsibility for one's contribution to the group energy;
  • Practice spontaneous, unrehearsed interaction; 

Group stands in a circle. One person ‘throws’ a random sound to another person in the group. That second person ‘receives’ the sound with the motion of catching a potato or small beanbag and—importantly—repeats as precisely as possible the sound sent to them. Right away, that receiver tosses a new sound with a new gesture to another person in the circle. The zippier the movement of sounds around the circle, the better. As always, encourage active physical gestures to send and receive and remind folks to resist planning ahead for ‘clever’ or ‘creative’ sounds. What comes, comes.

  • Experience a nonverbal "yes...and" of accepting what is offered just as it is;
  • Experience receiving an offer without judgment;
  • Practice contributing to the energy of a group moment to moment;

Leader starts with a simple sound and motion that is passed to the person to the right who will then pass it on and so forth around the circle. The idea is repeat the sound and motion as closely as possible to what the last person did. Participants should be ready to receive the sound and motion and immediately, without thinking, pass it on. ContinEaue around the circle and pick up the pace. VARIATION: Then start with another small sound and motion, instructing each person to make it a little bigger. Continue until the sound and motion is huge.

  • To express the stress that gets in the way of spontaneity and creativity;
  • To practice letting go of conventions and stretching one's voice and emotions;
  • To practice the skill of externalizing hidden thoughts and feelings;

The group discusses areas of life they want to gripe about, e.g. traffic, gas prices, taxes, bosses, in-laws, etc. A group of 4 or 5 become the chorus and each is assigned a topic to rant about. The conductor then directs each chorus member to begin, heighten, continue or end their rant. As directed, each chorus member raises or lowers their velocity, volume and intensity. The director might have one member solo, then add another, have everyone rant at once. 
Use the same template to identify negative thoughts and mental habits that rise up at the idea of an important change, the internal voice of the "fixed" minset e.g. "I want to ask for a promotion" might raise up: These things never work out; Don't rock the boat; If you deserve a promotion it will just come, you shouldn't have to ask; "Don't stick your neck out, you'll just get hurt" 'If you don't get the promotion you will feel horrible, better leave things as they are;" Do the chorus as above. 
Change each of the "no" statements to a "growth" statement and make a competing chorus, e.g. Change "These things never work out" to "For anything new to happen I have to do something new." Change "Don't rock the boat" to "Its a good practice to find the right way to speak up for what I want." Change "Don't stick your neck out, you'll just get hurt" to "I feel strong when I push myself to go after something I really want." Conduct the chorus of growth, then both choruses together.
Emotional Squares is an exercise that explores an issue or problem by setting up a quadrant in the room, and assigning a specific emotion to each quadrant: Happy, Sad, Angry, Fear. The participant stands in a quadrant and speaks out loud from the emotion of that square. Another group member calls out "Change" and the participant moves around the quadrant in a clockwise direction, or in the pattern established by the group. Or the group can call out an emotion and the participant moves there. 

This exercise is an adaptation of this that is useful for exploring and unpacking the elements of a mindset. 
Thoughts are what we are thinking and are aware we are thinking, e.g. "Its time for me to get out of this relationship, its not good for me."
Feelings are the emotions that connect to what we are thinking: "I am so afraid to be alone, but I don't love this person"
Beliefs are the foundational assumptions related to our thoughts and feelings, sometimes conscious, sometimes subconscious, e.g. "People should do everything they can to save their relationships; I'm a failure if I don't make this work, Divorce is a sin" 
Relationships are the social connections that are impacted by this issue/change, e.g. "My kids will be devastated if I make this change;" "I do have friends who have successfully gotten out of unhappy marriages." 
By moving around these quadrants and exploring the issues that rise up at the idea of a change, we can see where to work with a client that will help cultivate a "growth" approach to the steps they want to take. We can work with helping them find groups and support systems that provide a sense of belonging in the world they are moving toward. We can help them develop strategies for navigating the ways that change unbalances relationships and gain the strengths to power through any obstacles to their change from the social world. 

Some quotes from: "How Can Teachers Develop Students' Motivation - and Success?" An Interview with researcher Carol Dweck in Education World

"There is no relation between students' abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities. Some of the very brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected."

"Students who believe that intelligence is a potential that they can develop do fare better when faced with challenge. For example, they often blossom across a challenging school transition when their fellow students with the fixed view are busy doubting themselves and losing their edge."

We have found with students of all ages, from early grade school through college, that the changeable view can be taught. Students can be taught that their intellectual skills are things that can be cultivated -- through their hard work, reading, education, confronting of challenges, etc"

"Researchers (for example, Joshua Aronson of the University of Texas) have even shown that college students' grade point averages go up when they are taught that intelligence can be developed."

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, T is a trainer/consultant, and writer/performer. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a monthly storytelling show that features true stories - with a twist. 


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