In Person or Remote, Social and Emotional Learning Is Key

Academics only happen when students' social and emotional learning comes first.

Posted Aug 03, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

 Ivan Aleksic/Unsplash
Source: Ivan Aleksic/Unsplash

My daughter’s school is planning on opening this fall, but I’m preparing my plan B. I can picture schools opening in September, but I have a really hard time picturing them staying open for the duration of the school year. I took a COVID-19 test over two weeks ago and still haven’t gotten the results. How are we supposed to trace the virus when testing is lagging so far behind? My plan B is to provide my daughter with the social and emotional learning she needs, whether she’s in school or at home this year.

When I was a middle and high school teacher, I created what I call the Improv Paradigm. This was my way of using the principles and benefits of improvisation to help my students improve their listening and collaboration skills and stay open to new ideas and perspectives. And it’s going to be my North Star this school year—a school year that I’ve no doubt will be filled with surprise, uncertainty, and setbacks.

Social and emotional learning is always important. Students need to feel safe and secure before they can learn. But in times like the one we’re currently struggling with, social and emotional learning may be what helps all of us successfully arrive whole on the other side.

The Improv Paradigm

The Improv Paradigm consists of three principles that parents and teachers can measure and then try to improve to make sure young people are primed and ready to work together, be creative, and learn.


The first principle is listening. If students aren’t listening to each other and their parents and teachers, academic learning is going to be … tough, to say the least. If I noticed that my students weren’t listening, I would intervene with games and exercises to enhance active listening.

I love Word at a Time Story for this. You only need two or more people to play. All you do is tell a story that makes sense by taking turns adding one word of the story at a time. You can tell right away when people aren’t listening because the story stops making sense. Then you can talk about how listening broke down and how we can improve for the next round. I’ve played this game with children as young as five, and it’s usually a crowd favorite.  


The second principle is openness. If I noticed my students judging each other or each other’s ideas, I knew that we didn’t have a trusting enough classroom environment to reach our academic benchmarks. This might be students calling each other names or making rude comments about each other’s ideas.

I like games like the Yay Game to address openness deficits. In this Keith Johnstone game, players take turns saying lines in an adventure and then responding after each line by raising their arms high and yelling “Yay!” For example, someone might say, “We’re going to the moon.” Then everyone says “Yay!” Then the next person might say, “We’re going on a rocket ship.” Yay!”

The Yay Game is great to improve openness in the learning environment because students have to practice accepting each other’s ideas instead of always judging them. It’s important to debrief about what it feels like to embrace ideas that we don’t actually like and how it feels when your ideas are embraced compared to when they are judged or rejected.


Finally, there’s collaboration. I use improv’s “Yes, And” principle to help students improve their collaboration skills. If students are having a difficult time working together, I’ll lead an improv exercise such as Yes And. In this game, one person says the first line of a scene. Then the next person has to say “Yes," and then repeat what the first person just said. Then they continue by saying “and” and adding a new line to the scene. Finally, the first person does the same. They say “yes,” repeat the line that was just added, say “and,” and add another new line that makes sense for the scene.

So why does the Improv Paradigm matter right now?

 JESHOOTS dot COM/Unsplash
Source: JESHOOTS dot COM/Unsplash

I’m keeping listening, openness, and collaboration at the heart of all my planning for this coming school year, and I hope educators and parents can do the same. Multiplication tables are important, for sure. But if students are anxious, unsettled, and afraid, all the drilling in the world won’t allow us to meet whatever academic standards we’ve established.

This year is going to be uncertain and unpredictable. That may be the only thing we can count on. So instead of putting our heads down and focusing primarily on academics, I think we need to focus on our young people’s social and emotional learning. My plan B is to be ready to playfully help my daughter with her listening, openness, and collaboration, whether she’s in school or not.

I’m going to buy a water table and create a ball pit in the basement for rainy days because I’m fairly confident she’ll be home way more often than a normal school year. Maybe even most of the year. I want to be ready for that uncertainty, so I can occasionally drop what I’m working on and play some improv games with her that will allow both of us to connect and feel secure and creative.

Academic learning will come. But for right now, I’m hoping other parents and teachers will also give themselves permission to get back to basics—making sure children feel safe enough to play well with others.


Drinko, C. D. (2018). The Improv Paradigm: three principles that spur creativity in the classroom. In Creativity in Theatre(pp. 35-48). Springer, Cham.

Johnstone, K. (2012). Impro: Improvisation and the theatre. Routledge.