ARM Teachers – YES – With Applied Improv Training!

It is a disturbing reality that our nation is struggling with gun laws, active shooting preparations, and immeasurable tragedies around violence. We have a new term for kids in this era, “Generation Lockdown” and this 8 y.o. girl knows more about preparing for an “active shooter” than any child should have to.

Picture of 8 y.o. girl who gave staff meeting training on what to do in the event of an "active shooter".

Watch this brief video of an All-Staff meeting in National City, CA for your own safety. Kayleigh has the necessary expertise. She, along with 95% of public school children in the USA practice lockdown drills at school.

Rather than arm teachers with guns, I propose an idea that will help them promote healthy social interactions. Because healthy social interactions are the opposite of bullying, isolation, and disengagement. Behaviors that contribute to internalizing or externalizing violence.

And there is a surprising tool that can help – applied improv. Integrating simple improv activities into your lesson plans monthly or even once in a while can contribute to healthier individuals, more positive relationships, and safer classrooms. It won’t cost a lot of money or take a lot of time and since improv by nature is interactive, the potential for social and emotional learning is huge.

Improv and Children

Viola Spolin and Neva Boyd are considered to be pioneers in the work of bridging social and emotional learning with theater education in the last century. Their work evolved into the well-known improv phenomenon, 2nd City in Chicago through Spolin’s son, Paul Sills and currently via her granddaughter, Aretha Sills.

I developed a model using theater games to teach emotional intelligence to children as my practicum in graduate school. The idea arose from the combination of learning my own relationship patterns in psychotherapy, growing new skills with improv classes, observing my son’s positive theater experiences, and teaching communication-related skills to healthcare professionals.

After graduating, I used this model in summer camps in Maine and New Hampshire and for a service learning grant with 3rd and 5th graders in York, ME. Consistently, the feedback from parents, teachers, and children included improvements in:

  • Ability to listen
  • Confidence
  • Patience
  • Relationships
  • Communication

If you are a teacher of any subject grades 3 and up, have facilitation skills, want to act now, this article will give you what you need to get started including this link to instructions for a simple warm-up activity called “Radical Acceptance“. (Originally written for business leaders with an addendum of facilitation tips for teachers.)

If you are intrigued by the idea and want more help facilitating activities, discuss this article with your school’s principal, drama teacher, and guidance counselor, take an improv class, or check out this pilot class for teachers and leaders. The best way to learn to teach is to play.

Why Expert Facilitation Skills are Essential

Many kids and adults are anxious about participating in interactive activities. While some of us are naturally introverted, we can see how social skills are being eroded on a grand scale right in front of our eyes. We are becoming social animals without skills to socialize. Learning these essential skills can feel scary. Teachers need to create a safe environment, minimize emotional risk, and ensure everyone’s success.

There is a delicate line between nudging someone outside their comfort zone for healthy social growth and ensuring emotional safety. You need to be able to sense group power dynamics, individual skill levels and readiness for risk, tweak activities in ways that support learning needs and inclusion, and be fully present, fair, and trustworthy. These skills are intuitive and can be developed with practice and a genuine desire to keep everyone safe.

What are the benefits?

Inclusion & Dignity

Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. Simple improv activities, like “Radical Acceptance”, involve everyone and are non-competitive. You don’t have to be perfect, or funny, or dramatic. You do have to be collaborative, appropriate, and respectful. There are no winners or losers. Some students will be more engaged, expressive, and comfortable than others for sure and that’s ok. With a little guidance you can make sure that everyone is included while learning to appreciate each other’s differences. This, in and of itself is worth dedicating a few minutes every month to playing some improv with your class and developing your skills as a facilitator.

Helps Students at Risk

Are there students in your classroom who seem introverted, shy, alone a lot, or quiet? As you know, these kids may be at risk for bullying, disengagement or isolation and a variety of mental or physical health issues as a result. Facilitated improv activities can be ideal for fostering engagement between these kids and others. This is important because improv, like life, involves relationships and interactions. While scary for some, in your classroom you can nurture, monitor, and model participation. This may still feel emotionally risky, yet what is going on on the playground, in the locker room, on the way to school, or even at home may be much more dangerous.

Build Emotional Intelligence and Communication Skills

Some of the most magical outcomes of applied improv are when people develop self-confidence, trust in themselves and others, and become better communicators. Soft skills that are critical in all areas of life and are constantly being developed and practiced in applied improv!

In the same activity and same moment one person is learning to speak up while another is learning to listen. You facilitate the learning and participants actually teach each other! For instance, one child who is more confident and assertive will help another develop these skills by listening to a quieter child. This means being quiet until s/he gets ready to share an idea and supportive when s/he does. Meanwhile the quieter child, while working at self-expression, helps her ‘friend’ to become more patient and a better listener.

Practice Sharing Power

Communication is a dance that involves a complex exchange of leading and following in the course of developing trust and navigating relationships. One way to think about it is that listening requires us to give up power and speaking up requires taking on power. For listening, we have to be able to let other people in for decision-making and honor other perspectives that may be quite different from our own. This means we have to let go or at least suspend our own ideas and ways of thinking. For speaking up, we need to be willing to share ideas and concerns and demonstrate accountability, in short to put ourselves out there. Both letting go of power and taking it on can feel unfamiliar and emotionally risky. Yet, being able to share power is integral to forming healthy relationships, managing conflict, and embracing diversity. Processes that our world is in dire need of.

If you are curious about the deeper work involved in communication, I explore them in these two 30 min webinars for nurse leaders with F.A. Davis Publishing.

Activities are Fun

Play enhances learning and provides incentive even if you are teaching math or history. And if this kind of activity is outside your comfort zone, please don’t let that stop you. Have a drama teacher help, or a student who is active in drama, or dive in knowing that your discomfort will probably be very powerful modeling for others who feel similarly. And you might find that you grow. I am still having fun and learning as I teach improv and will frequently start out with an activity I learned from Jude Treder-Wolff in a workshop on managing change.

“Radical Acceptance”

Radical Acceptance” is such a simple activity you may be shocked at how quickly and easily the benefits can be felt. One young man told me once that he loved it so much he taught his friends at a bachelor party and they loved it! Keep that in mind as you read about it and resist the urge to dismiss it because it seems silly! The above link describes the activity for business leaders with an addendum at the end with tips for teachers! If you have questions or feedback, please reach out