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Social-Emotional Learning Through Applied Improvisation - Cont Ed workshop hand-out

workshop design and facilitation
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT

Principles of Improvisation that relate to Social-Emotional Learning
1) Picking up social cues and reading emotional tones;
2) Accept what is happening without judgment;
3) Shift the emotional direction through making offers;
4) Fail with humor;
5) See opportunities, not threats

Social-emotional learning -- which is defined by the Collaborative For Academic, Social and Emotional Learning as "the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions"  is associated with enhanced academic success among students and job performance among adults, as well as increased interpersonal effectiveness and life satisfaction. For these reasons, understanding the concept of social-emotional learning and having user-friendly techniques to deploy in clinical or education settings is essential for social workers. 

"I think improv helps people become better humans. It makes people listen better. Improv rules are life rules.   And so, if a lot more people are taking improv, a lot more people are being thoughtful in their daily life about how they interact with each other...."We could say that saying “yes” is the foundational thing, but really it's listening and hearing what the other person is saying. Then building off of that rather than waiting for someone to stop talking so you can say your thing. That's the hardest thing to learn as an improviser—it's to listen. And I think that's one of the hardest things to do as a person. Listen, and use what's being said rather than 'oh are you done yet? let me say what I'm going to say.'" Learning To Listen, With The Help of Improv, on
The language of feelings - and their purpose in producing powerful social bonds - might be the most important learning we ever achieve. Social-emotional events linked with new information are integral to our ability to receive, store and use it. "Event memories are tied to specific emotionally or physically charged events (strong sensory input) because of the emotional intensity of the events to which they are linked," explains neurologist Judy Willis in Research-Based Strategies To Ignite Student Learning. "Because the dramatic event powers its way through the neural pathways of the emotionally pre-activated limbic system into memory storage, the associated hitch-hiking academic information gets pulled along with it. Recollection of the academic material occurs when the emotionally significant event comes to mind, unconsciously or consciously. To remember the lesson, students can cue up the dramatic event to which it is linked.    
Matthew Lieberman, PhD

These "dramatic events" are emotional because of meaning derived out of our experiences with other people. Matthew Lieberman, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Biobehavioral Sciences and author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connectargues that our need to reach out to and connect with others is a primary driver behind our behavior. He discusses research which shows, for example, that the parts of the brian that are lit up when we are rejected by other people - even if we hardly know them - is the same part of the brain that is activated when we feel physical pain. Empathy, intuition, and other emotionally-driven social cues are integral to to learning and success, according to his findings. 

This information should be remaking the way we think about education, health care and any other domain in which the acquisition and application of knowledge or behavior change are the primary objectives. "Our institutions — from schools and sports teams to the military and health care institutions — would perform better if they were structured with an understanding of our social nature," Dr. Lieberman stated in an interview with UCLA News. "Our school system says to turn off that social brain. We typically don't teach history by asking what Napoleon was thinking; we teach about territorial boundaries and make it as non-social as possible. Too often we take away what makes information learnable and memorable and emphasize chronology while leaving out the motivations. Eighth graders' brains want to understand the social world and the minds of other people. We can tap into what middle school students are biologically predisposed to learn, and we can do this to improve instruction in history and English, and even math and science."

Our interactions with other people are constantly creating and reinforcing neural pathways. Through relationships we literally change one another’s brains. In the critical developmental years of adolescence, having skills that promote relationships of reciprocity can form a foundation for shaping one's social/emotional life going forward. In “Grand Challenge: Nature Versus Nurture: How Does the Interplay of Biology and Experience Shape Our Brains and Make Us Who We Are?” a panel of researchers at the Institute of Medicine (US) 2008 Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders. Washington (DC) Researcher Colin Blakemore, Ph.D stated that his and others' studies show that “neurons can change their connectivity. They can change the strength of their connections. They can change the morphology of their connections. They can do it not necessarily just in early stages of life, although that is especially exaggerated, but probably throughout life responding to new environments and experiences.”

The skills developed through engagement in the games and exercise described below include: 

  • Recognizing how the stress response impacts thinking and physiology;
  • Learning how to focus attention in ways that help pilot through the stress response without being derailed by it;
  • Connecting to the emotional energy of a group;
  • Contributing to a positive emotional tone in a group;
  • Responding to the unpredictable with mental agility, adaptability and creativity;
  • Getting on the same page with others in a short amount of time;
  • Empathy and emotional awareness;
  • Recognizing and responding to social cues;
  • Collaboration with partners;

I AM A TREE - Social-Emotional Learning edition
Develop a story moment-to-moment;
Replace over-thinking and planning with moment-to-moment responsiveness;
Collaborate with others to create a story without planning or over-thinking;
Focus awareness on emotions;

Player A stands in the center of the circle and says "I am a tree." Next player adds something to the tree, e.g. "I am a bird in the tree." Next player adds something to the bird, e.g. "I am a piece of birdseed in the bird's beak." Next player adds something to the birdseed, e.g. "I am the lady throwing birdseed on the ground." Next player adds something to the lady throwing birdseed, e.g. "I am the bench the lady is sitting on. And so on until everyone is in the story. The story can continue, starting with the last offer that was made: "I am the bench the lady is sitting on," followed by "I am a cell phone that's been left on the bench, " etc. 

Then begin a story that involves offers that center on emotions, e.g. First player: "I am the sad umbrella;" Next player: "I am the angry rain coming down on the umbrella." Next player: "I am the frustrated child whose picnic lunch is ruined by the rain." etc. See how far the story can go. Try to make the emotional offers build on one another. Discuss what is challenging about that and how it informs the collaboration. 

Practice attentive listening;
Practice bypassing the impulse to edit or expand content and focus on emotional expression;
Discuss content with incongruent, "over the top" emotions that produce the dramatic event that drives social-emotional learning;
Practice listening to a complex communication that combines content and emotion;

Two players sit on chairs side by side. Player A discusses the material about the stress response (or any other content, it could be something that was discussed earlier in the workshop) coming from a strong emotion. Player B listens, saying nothing, mirroring the emotion as closely as possible. When Player A perceives that Player B is in the same emotional space, he/she leaves the park bench and Player C joins Player B. Player B repeats everything he/she said about the topic - without adding any content the person did not include, sticking to what was said - with the strong emotional expression, then shifts to a different emotion, which the next player mirrors. Player B leaves and Player D joins Player C, mirrors the emotion and absorbs the changed emotion when Player B shifts gears. 

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer, writer/performer and President of Lifestage, Inc a company that designs and facilitates creative, experiential training for human service professionals and arts-based growth groups and events. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a storytelling show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people of all backgrounds, ages and walks of life.


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