Social Emotional Learning – Using Improv in Schools to Teach SEL

Social Emotional Learning
Using Improv in Schools to Teach SEL

  • ASSEMBLY SHOWS – using interactive games that teach emotions to get students more comfortable feeling – and talking about – emotions
  • Check out our SHOWS and CLASSES in Times Square for the whole family

What is SEL?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is 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.

from Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning



We have developed a new program for schools using Improv to demonstrate SEL via assembly shows and workshops. The program was created at the request of our recent work with two Long Island Schools.Improv 4 Teens

Our programs have dealt with these issues for years – using different language to achieve similar goals – so customizing to the new trend in education was easy. We use Improv to address community and leadership skills. Creative writing, team, listening, focus, public speaking, self-confidence and more. Our Improv is great for Cultural Arts programming (Music, Theater), Language Arts (Creative Writing, Public Speaking etc) and Character Building (Leadership, Anti Bully etc).

Social Emotional Learning
Using Improv in Schools to Teach SEL

  • Your feelings / emotions are valid
  • Others feelings / emotions are valid
  • You have a right to feel, but need to take responsibility on how you act out upon those feeling
  • Be supportive and thoughtful towards your own and others’ feelings / emotions

In our new curriculum we have pulled from both our workshops and assembly programs.

This Master Class in emotions starts with our lead teaching artist speaking about the history of acting. Back in the day actors did not try to feel real emotions on stage for fear of illness. Instead they learned masks. The study in acting actually involved memorizing 10 faces that represent various emotional states. They would make a face and project a line – Hence the comedy/tragedy masks of fame.

We play the MASK game.

Sitting on the floor we are surrounded by masks.

Students are instructed to sit quietly in a “neutral” state. The face is relaxed.

The teacher then instructs students to put on the mask of (insert emotion here). Remain sitting and take on that the traits of that emotion. Breathe, make a face, make simple noises. Keep movement to a minimum so as not to smack your neighbor in the face.

Remove the mask and return to a quiet neutral state.

Discussion – What happens when you feel that emotion?

We keep the parameters to a minimum because the statements of the children are very telling. When an actor plays this game we think of how the breath and body change with each emotion. But children go farther sharing they want to hit things when they are mad etc

These create amazingly powerful teaching moments very specific. We continue to reinforce how important it is to realize your valid in feeling your emotions.

We need to respect others emotions.

While we cannot apologize for feeling emotions, we are responsible for what we do with those emotions. Violence and meanness are never acceptable. Let your self feel emotions but not act on them without thought. Breaking property is never justifiable. It is never okay to physically, mentally or emotionally hurt another human being. Even when we are happy we should never put our hands on another person’s body unless it is welcomed.

Repeat process for a few basic emotions.


The players perform an Improv Game. EMOTIONAL CARPOOL (Also known as Hitch Hiking Emotions) requires four players to enter a car. Each player is assigned an emotion. As a player enters the car, anyone in the car takes on the new emotion. Once all four player are in the car the emotions revert back to the previous.

Player one is the driver and is assigned HAPPY. Player one establishes what kind of car he/she is driving and where they are headed.

Shortly after Player Two appears on stage down left or down right of the car. Player One pantomimes pulling over the car to pick up player two  – who has been assigned SCARED. Player one remains to exhibit signs of being happy until Player two sits in the car, at which time BOTH players appear to be scared.

Then we see a very SAD  Player Three. As before the entire car becomes sad when player Three sits.

An ANGRY Player Four inspires all to rage upon arrival.

Then player four finds an excuse to leave. The entire car reverts to being SAD.

Player three leaves, leaving a SAD couple in the front seats.

Player two departs, leaving a HAPPY player one to wind up the scene.


DISCUSSION – we return to discussion of emotions. What did the actors do to perform these emotions? How did you feel when the actors performed these emotions. Did anyone hit or otherwise hurt each other when angry, sad or scared?


Now we will play a game with some audience help. I need 10 volunteers.

The machine is started with one of our players creating a simple repetitive motion and sound.

A second player connects in some way to the first and adds their own motion and sound.

Then we direct the students to join the machine one at a time. Eventually we have 10-12 individuals working together to create some imaginary factory machine.

The host / MC than conducts the machine.

Let’s all now get louder…. softer… faster… slower…

This very simple exercise delivers hilarious results.

“Did everyone have fun?”

“Did anyone say or do anything mean in order to have fun?”

My number one rule in life is to have fun but NEVER at anyone else’s expense.
The number one rule of Improv is “YES! And…”

Both are all about supporting your team. Accepting what ever comes your way and responding with positive reinforcement.

Many of us have learned to look out for ourselves. In Improv our goal is to make the rest of our team look great. So while we are busy making the others look good, they are all looking out for us. Instead of being one flying solo, you have 10-20 friends watching your back and routing for your success which is so much more fun.


The professional cast takes stage one last time to perform a traditional scene game that demonstrates encountering emotions is pseudo realistic situations.

The MC asks students to yell out some more emotions.

We get a scene location or other “ASK FOR” to inspire a scene (relationship, favorite song etc)

The players start a scene. Soon the MC yells freeze,announces and emotion and the cast takes on that emotion as they continue the scene.


We leave the students with this thought. We are able to create scenes on the spot because we each respect the other. We support each other. We trust each other. Creating a safe space to create allows us to freely share without fear of failure or judgment.

If we mess up, who cares? If our team mate mess up, who cares?

Without this fear of failure or judgment, we thrive and discover amazing things, creating amazing stories no one person would derive on their own.


Do you feel safe to openly share your thoughts and emotions in class? At home?

Is anyone out there make you feel unsafe? If so ask for help. Who can we ask for help? (Students share – Police, Teachers, Parents…)

If your friends feels unsafe, be a good friend and get help.

If you friend engages in activity that hurts another physically, emotionally of mentally, don’t along with it. Get help from an adult.

As time permits we open the discussion to questions from the audience.

improv 4 kids


Improv workshops amazingly support all of the above. One of our teaching artists will work with your students, playing a series of theater games.


Working as a team students play a series of games that pass energy and focus, create stories and more. Each game works on specific skills but all develop team mentality, self confidence and more.


Zip Zap Zup etc focus on both verbal and non verbal communication skills. Via ridiculous words and sounds, a student will pass the energy to another.  Students are instructed to clearly communicate their intent projecting their voice, engaging. When not directly engaged in an energy pass, the rest of the students, while standing in a circle, follow the energy around the circle. In order to smoothly receive the energy one needs to be focused – actively listening with ears and eyes.


Games such as ONE WORD STORY require the entire circle to listen and focus. We must respect everyone else’s contribution to the story. We YES And.. all that we hear. In ONE WORD STORY each student adds to the story one word at a time. We follow with our eyes and listen with our ears. When the story approaches us,we receive the story, making eye contact with the previous player. We then look in the eyes of the next player and pass the story on adding our one single word. We don’t plan ahead. We don’t try to be funny. We don’t skip prepositions. We simply play our part in the larger scheme. When listening and focus break down the story falls a part. When we focus and listen as a team we create amazing original stories. these stories maybe ridiculous and nonsensical, but they somehow work because we all agreed and supported all of our team mates.


There are 1000s of games we can draw from depending on the students age, level etc. We often change our game plan in the moment depending on the class at hand. Every group of students are unique and we can tailor the program at hand to that class.

In all of these games we work as a team, 2-10 at a time, to create stories and scenes. Some are more physically demanding, some are more cerebral. All require us to have fun and work together to complete.


More and more our teaching artists are presenting weekly programs and week long sit downs at schools, camps and community programs. Students work together to create a showcase of Improv performance playing numerous games and mastering a number of valuable skills. Compared to other performance arts programs students can excel at an entertaining level faster than any other.


The real power of our programs is continuing what we teach long after we depart. We can even present a professional development program to assist. Use improv to help learn books and plays in ELA. Use Improv to act out historical figures in history and science. try breaking the tension before a math test with a fun game. Use Improv in guidance to role play social situations. Play Improv games before department meetings to start with some laughs and smiles.


What can laughter do?
Here are just some benefits for mental, physical and social health

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increase vascular blood flow and oxygenation of the blood
  • Give a workout to the diaphragm and abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles
  • Reduce certain stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline
  • Increase the response of tumor- and disease-killing cells such as Gamma-interferon and T-cells
  • Defend against respiratory infections–reducing the frequency of colds–by immunoglobulon in saliva.
  • Increase memory and learning; in a study at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, humor during instruction led to increased test scores
  • Improve alertness, creativity, and memory






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