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In It Together: Social-Emotional Learning through Applied Improvisation workshop handout

Social-emotional events have a direct impact on our ability to receive, store and use new information. "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 preactivated 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, Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA whose book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, argues that our need to reach out to and connect with others is a primary driver behind our behavior. Empathy, intuition, and other emotionally-driven social cues are integral to to learning and success, according to his findings. 
Improvisation games and exercises are exactly the kind of "dramatic event" that drives new learning. They are social because they involve interaction with other people and emotional because of their meaning.  Along with the research showing that creative engagement illuminates, accelerates and integrates new learning, 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.

Improvisation is a direct and engaging way for clients and students to learn skills for social interaction that help them relate well to others. Having these skills - and learning how to join with others to get things, have fun and collaborate - have far-reaching implications. 
Impact of social rejection research  study: Research subjects were engaged in a ball-tossing experiment and told that what was being studied was reflex time. At some point during the experiment, all the secret research guys stopped tossing the ball to the research subject. Afterwards, the subjects talked mostly about how they felt about being left out of the game. MRI tests of their brain activity show that social rejection and vulnerability is processed in the same part of the brain that processes physical pain. “Broken hearts and broken bones: a neural perspective on the similarities between social and physical pain.” Current Directions InPsychological Science

Researchers published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that "powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion. These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.""Pain, Social Rejection Have Similar Effect On The Brain" on Web MD

5 Core Competencies of Social-Emotional Learning
Self-Awareness: "I recognize my own thoughts and feelings and their impact on my behavior. I know my strengths and gifts as well as weaknesses and areas where I need work.

Self-Management: "I can regulate my thoughts, emotions, and behavior appropriate to different situations. I know what triggers my stress, how to deal with my emotional reactions and motivate myself."

Social-Awareness: "I make an effort to see other people clearly, and can interact with others from roles that are appropriate. I can see situations from others' perspective, and recognize social, familial, school and community resources."

Relationship Skills: "I can form rewarding, appropriate interpersonal connections with others, I communicate, listen, engage in rewarding partnerships, negotiate conflict and seek or offer help as needed.

Responsible decision-making: "I can make respectful, constructive choices about personal behavior or social ineractions. I am grounded in a set of values, ethics, self-expectations, and realistic evaluation of the consequences of my actions."


Spectrogram - looking at who is in the group with a spectrum as a structure

Identify one end of the room as representing the month of January, the opposite end the month of December. Ask the group to line up according to their birthday without speaking. They can communicate any way at all except the spoken word. After everyone is the line, check out how close the group got to a chronological order.

Identify the "Jan" end of the room as the "least" and the Dec end of the room as the "most" have the group line up by how far they had to travel to come to this event. No talking, but some other communication is fine.

Using the same "least" and "most" endpoints line up by how many years in the field; How many groups or communities are you a part of - this can include facebook or online groups that people read and engage with;

This spectrogram can dig a little deeper after people are warmed up with questions like "How do you feel about ________ (a specific subject in school, talking on the phone, asking for help when you need it).

Process with the group about what we now know about one another and how does that impact the way the group feels.

WHO, LIKE ME..... 
Find out about who is in the group;
Develop connections among group members based on commonalities;
Combine physical movement with thoughts and social connections;
Practice taking and sharing focus;

The group sits in a circle, with enough chairs for all but one person. The person who has no chair begins by standing in the center of the circle and saying something that is true about him/herself in the form of a question about who shares this trait or fact: Who, like me (is left-handed, speaks more than 1 language, has a pet). Everyone in the circle who shares this jumps up and grabs another chair. The person in the middle tries to get into an empty seat and the person who is left in the middle asks another question. 

Reflect on what we have learned about each other and how it feels to be in the group before and after this exercise.

Practice listening and responding without overthinking
Focus on creating and maintaining a rhythm with the group rather than saying something clever or "right"

The group stands in a circle. A player "tosses" a word to another player by making eye contact with them and saying any word that comes to mind. The receiver repeats the word that was tossed and says the first word that comes to mind. Then that player tosses a new word to another player, first making eye contact so the person is ready. In the first round, the objective is to say the first word that comes to mind and not be at all concerned about the content. The objective is more about establishing a rhythm that is felt than anything the rational mind will view as making "sense." Words associate in our brains in all sorts of ways and we want to allow a free expression of words that does not allow us to go into judging mode. If we allow ourselves to express the word that pops in and then just move on to the next play in the game, we can shift out of self-protective mode ("did I say the right thing? Is this ok? I hope people like what I said") to creative mode (I'm discovering something with my partners, I'm in a rhythm with them and something new is going to happen). 

This play can continue with another round. This time player toss words, receivers say the first thing that comes to mind, and if the word inspires a memory or a story the receiver can share that after saying the word. Encourage players to allow an idea or memory of an experience inspired by the word to share it.

Look at emotions through postures of the body;
Look at dynamics in relationships;
Collaborate with a group to create scenes;
Experience an interaction that is co-developed with the entire group;

Two players stand with their backs to one another. On a count of 3, each player strikes a pose and holds it. On another count of 3, the players turn to face each other. A dynamic between the 2 postures is visible to the group. The group chooses which player gets the first line - which will also establish who these 2 characters are to one another. The player chosen to speak first must start with the word "we" which helps to ground the interaction in a relationship or situation in which both are invested. The player chosen to respond accepts the role assigned by the player chosen to speak first. A brief scene is played with these roles evolving through interaction, until the director calls "scene." 

Discussion - how did it feel to have the group make the choice as to who will speak first? How did it feel to use physical postures to reveal dynamics between people? How might we use this exercise to examine dynamics between people when working with clients or students? 

Collaborate with others to produce a nonverbal "story" through physical postures and facial expressions;
Have fun while looking at dynamics between people in groups;
Develop a group dynamic by adding one element at a time;

In the style of "I Am A Tree" an awkward family photo will be created one family member at a time. The director or the group names what kind of family this is, e.g.
A family of cheerleaders
A family of executives
A family with no personal boundaries
A family who just lost all their money
A family of salespeople
A family of intellectual truck drivers

The next round is more challenging. No label is assigned to what the family will be, but it is revealed through the choices of the players. A player steps into the frame and assumes a strong pose. One by one other players join by either mirroring or complementing the pose, until it is clear what kind of family this is. 

Social-emotional experiences are best when engaging the body as well as interaction with others in a structured way that maximizes the potential for a positive outcome. The structure of these exercises allow for collaboration with the group - the sense that we are in this process together - while giving each member an opportunity to contribute. 

Two resources that explain why it is important to engage the body, mind and social interaction with these learning experiences:

"The thinking part of our brain evolved through entanglement with older parts that we now know are involved in emotion and feelings. Emotion and thought are physically entangled - immensely so. This brings our body into the story because we feel our emotions in our body and the way we feel always influences our brain."
James Zull, "The Art Of Changing The Brain," Educational Leadership

In his book Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina explains this phenomenon: “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’”

"Comedic improv therapy, a group therapy model inspired by the practice of improv comedy, provides a novel treatment for social anxiety disorder by harnessing the following therapeutic elements: (a) group cohesiveness, (b) play, (c) exposure, and (d) humor. This article outlines the theoretical basis for this creative treatment and discusses important considerations for the practical application of this mode of therapy, such as the combination of comedic improv therapy with other modes of therapy. Lastly, this article describes an existing clinical program called Improv for Anxiety that integrates comedic improv therapy with group cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of social anxiety disorder. "Comedic Improv Therapy For The Treatment Of Social Anxiety" 
Journal of Creativity in Mental Health

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer, President of Lifestage, Inc a NYS-approved provider of Continuing Education for Social Workers. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories - with a twist - and is performed on Long Island, in NYC and around the country. She is performing her new solo show This Isn't Helping.


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