The Importance of Improv and Social Emotional Learning

The more I work with kids of all ages, the more I understand the importance of Social and Emotional Learning as a way to not only help children learn, but also to help them bring out their true selves and adapt valuable skills that will help them for the rest of their lives. Writer (and my sometimes assistant) Jim Martyka interviewed me about SEL and how it’s played a part in my life and my teaching.

How did you learn about SEL?

I have actually been teaching improvisation to kids for almost 20 years. I was not teaching them for theatrical purposes at all. Rather, I developed the Fulton Method because I know what improvisation did for me as a kid struggling in school and I wanted to pass on to others what improv gave to me. My way of working with improvisation helps children discover potentials within themselves and teaches them how to build character and bring out their very best in anything they do.

One Thanksgiving, I was over my aunt’s house visiting my cousin who is an adjunct professor. She was telling me that she was working on something called SEL.  I told her I had never heard of it and asked her to explain to me what it was. As she began talking and describing to me what Social Emotional Learning was, I realized that was what I’ve been teaching at Total Improv Kids all along. We couldn’t believe it!

I sent her a copy of my book hoping that it would be helpful to a research paper she was working on. It turns out that there is a lack of activities out there to help schools implement SEL training. The activities that I teach in my class and provide in the book actually help to fill that gap.  I was very happy to hear that when she turned in her paper, the activities that I was using for my work we’re extremely beneficial to her work as well. In fact, the buzz over her paper was about the activities that I had supplied her.

I never realized that there was such a huge demand out there for what I was teaching the kids. So now I’m on a new quest to try to help more kids, preferably by going into schools and teaching the teachers the activities that they need to help any and all children of all learning levels.

Why do you think SEL is so important? Why does it work?

I don’t just think SEL is the important, I think it’s vital, especially now. We learn through playing. That is a fact. It is “playing” that teaches us the bulk of our social skills, and it also helps to teach us how to survive. We need our social skills to survive in our society.

However children are generally playing was less than they used to. The introduction of electronics—television, video games, cell phones, etc.— have caused children to become far more isolated. They often miss getting that experience and learning from active imaginary play.

This is why SEL activities are so important. SEL trains students to take responsibility for their own actions, words and interactions with others. They begin to understand how their behaviors affect other people and they learn about concepts like empathy and compassion. And maybe if we had more empathy and compassion we might have less bullying, more acceptance and deeper connection.

Kids need SEL training more now than ever.  I can’t tell you how happy I am that this is finally come into the national consciousness. I can’t wait to see what happens 20 years from now when SEL becomes a standard in every school. I would love to see kids having more respect for one another, more interaction, not being afraid to share their voice and speak their mind. All of that will help them make a difference in their lives communities.

What are some of the aspects of SEL that you most identify with?

That is an interesting question. Well, I can tell you this. I know what I went through as a kid growing up with a learning disability. I know that through improvisation, which was the closest thing to SEL training at the time, I discovered my voice, my intellect and my confidence.

It’s funny that I identify with kids who struggle to learn but in a different way. I feel as though I went through what they’re going through. Growing up, I felt I had a displaced relationship with the world around me. And I think in a lot of ways these kids feel the same way but they just don’t realize it. Or at least it seems as though they just can’t seem to put their finger on the problem. Of course, they don’t think the problem is internal. They always look at it as an external issue, that they’re victims of circumstance. That’s a real problem. They don’t realize they have a voice and they don’t know how to express themselves in a way that will get people to listen. I guess that’s not all that uncommon. I’m sure a lot of this experience that growing up. But if you look back now, and think ‘if I had only said this or that” or “if only I could’ve expressed what I was feeling” things might have been easier.

This is something I can definitely identify with, and this is why I developed the Fulton Method to begin with…so that children learn that when they’re in my class, anything and everything they say is valid. They need to know that. I know they have an intellect that’s starving to be heard. I expect them to use it and I show them that they have a say about what we do in class and how we approach it. I give them more involvement in the class so that they are participants in their own education. Every student understands what I’m doing and why. We go right to the games and exercises. Then we have a discussion as to what worked and what didn’t and why. We figure it out together…everyone equal.

How does improv help with Social Emotional Learning?

Improvisation is a very important and handy tool for Social Emotional Learning. However, it is not the be all, end all. It is extremely important to understand the child’s developmental level and to apply and practice activities accordingly. If certain exercises are given too soon, it can very much damage a child’s confidence and that would be extremely counter-productive. Also, bear in mind that I do not use just improv exercises. We play a lot of games as well. These games are also extremely important.

But as for the improvisation, what better way for a child to experience situations they’ve never been in then to role play. Within the structure of improvisation, I can place kids in a variety of situations. I also give them a position to take sometimes. And whether they agree with the position or not they have to defend it. They have to adapt. This is extremely useful for getting kids to learn how to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes.

Also in improvisation, the children have to work so closely together that it becomes a very bonding activity. This is where they start to learn empathy and compassion for each other. They’ll become aware of each other’s struggles, and rally around each other to succeed in overcoming an obstacle. I’ve also seen them get very encouraging to those kids who fall short of their goals. They begin to learn more about each other and care more about each other and their situations. It is experience that is the greatest teacher of all.

Another reason why improv helps and probably the most important one is that improv requires the kids to make choices. When they’re in any given situation that improv presents, they are required to make decisions and choices based on that situation. They also see the consequences of their choices and how they affect others in real time.

Then, when we discuss it, they learn how to give constructive criticism and how to take that criticism and understand what they need to get better. Within those discussions very often the kids reflect on situations they found themselves in and how they relate to what occurred on the stage. This gives them perspective on various topics and enables them to find they’re voice. I have witnessed some extraordinary changes in the kids because of this very important component.

What can Social Emotional Learning working with your Fulton Method bring out in kids?

With the Fulton Method, kids are active participants in their own education. They learn how to actively interact with each other to achieve a common goal. They are responsible for the success through their own participation. The Fulton Method utilizes games; improvisation games, theatre games and more. But it’s the kids who learn how to evaluate from their own experiences what’s working and what’s not. They get to learn how to troubleshoot and fix whatever is preventing them from achieving a common goal. It may not sound like much but this is actually very powerful stuff and the results are extraordinary. Especially the results I’ve had with children with autism and other types of learning disabilities.

I find that as time goes one, the shy kids start become bolder. They all become less intimidated by others including adults. I also find that they are not afraid to speak out for what they feel is right and for what they feel is wrong. They don’t just tell me what they think, they tell me why they’re thinking it, and their logic is usually flawless. If it does have a flaw, the others are more than willing to speak up and help figure out how to fix it through discussion. That’s very important—they learn how to sit down and discuss and communicate what they think in a logical and controlled manner. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

How are you working SEL into your work with kids?

Truthfully I don’t have to work it in. It’s already intrinsically there. Perhaps I’m just approaching it differently. I’m teaching these kids through role-playing and interaction. In the way I designed my class, the work does it all by itself.

What is your ultimate hope when you work with a student?

My hope is the same today as it was when I first started. My hope is that every child discovers their own voice along with their own true potential. I want them to discover what makes them happy. I want them to live their lives to their fullest extent. I want them to be able to explore their potentials, to not be afraid to stand up and be heard, to become leaders in their communities. It is my hope that they discover their true sense of self and live a happy fulfilling life.