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How to Use Improv to Increase Student Empathy

Updated: 6 days ago

Empathy -- the ability to understand and relate to another person’s feelings and emotions, an ability that is imperative in life, and in any career environment.

As teachers, we prepare students for their lives beyond education, and take particular note of helping students develop skills that will benefit them in their future careers, and their relationships with others currently, and moving forward as well. Empathy can be a particularly difficult skill to develop, but it is key to enriched living.

In truth, there are many great ways to develop empathy, such as advisory groups, social and emotional learning objectives and making emotional awareness a part of your classroom. There are few ways that are as engaging and as instructional as improvisation (improv) though. It’s a great way to have fun in your classroom, while also focusing on developing skills that will lead to a greater understanding of empathy for your students.

Improv is essentially made up of a few basic rules -- we’re going to call them “mindsets” though -- and games where those rules apply. These rules can move beyond the space of improv though, and into the lives of your students’ interactions with others -- this is where the rules become mindsets. Reflecting on the improv activities, and how they relate to actual interactions, will be pivotal to the process of increasing student empathy in your classroom.

Let’s get started.

Mindset # 1.) “Yes, And” Mentality

Suggested Game -- Plan an Event

The “yes, and” mentality is probably the most well-known rule of improv because it has moved beyond the improv space, and into design thinking methodology, innovative businesses and into education as well.

This mentality is built on the premise that saying “no” is easy, yet not supportive of ideation, creation and failing forward. “No” squashes any potential development from happening before it has even begun.

Furthermore, it’s not just about avoiding answers that start with “no,” but also avoiding responses that start with “yes, but” because they are essentially the same response.

Both “no” and “yes, but” lack active listening, and make it hard for an individual to share their ideas. In both responses, the individual sharing an idea is being promptly rejected, rather than supported in moving forward with the idea.

“Yes, and” responses leave open the possibility for an idea to be built upon. They also signify active listening -- with these responses, you’re encouraging your students to truly hear their classmates and others in their lives, and respond by acknowledging what they’ve heard, so that they can collaboratively move forward with that individual. Collaborative ideation, creation and risk-taking become easier, and a fail-forward mentality is easier to adopt.

You can reference this improv rule by tasking your students with planning an imaginary event as the game -- one that pertains to an entertaining and humorous subject, thereby making the build up of “yes, and” responses more outlandish as the game progresses.

Pair your students with one another and have one be the party planner, while the other responds to the event planner with the progression of “no” responses, to “yes, but” responses and finally to “yes, and” responses. Explore how the dynamics of the game change with each response, and how much more fun and supportive it is to say “yes, and.”

Mindset # 2.) Don’t Worry About Mistakes, Think Of Them As Opportunities

Suggested Game -- A Day In the Life

This mindset can really be used in any improv game because mistakes are inevitable, but not crippling, they are instead opportunities to increase the humor of a scene.

It's also extremely powerful in life, and empowers students to move beyond what they would normally deem as mistakes, and look for the opportunity in the mistake instead.

For example, Penicilin would have never been created if Sir Alexander Fleming hadn’t looked through his thrown-away Petri dishes in search of answers that would allow him to develop the apparent cure-all drug he was trying to create.

In other words, mistakes are a welcome part of life, and you can empower liberated innovators in your classroom by encouraging your students to rethink their opinion of failure with the mindset that it is a necessary and inevitable part of life, and that there is much to be won from that part of life.

By thinking of mistakes as inevitable, you’re learning how to empathize with individuals who make mistakes because we all do. Once your students realize this, then they are able to encourage each other and others in their lives through mistakes with the mindset that there is opportunity there, and empathize with those individuals because they know that everyone makes mistakes.

A good way to bring this mindset to your classroom is by playing an improv game where the scenes enacted are freeform and fully run by your students’ imaginations.

Have your students pick a favorite superhero, sports hero or celebrity, and enact what a day in the life of that individual may be like. They can do different scenes and enactments, and try to capitalize off of situations where perceived mistakes are made. The point is, mistakes will be made because the only direction given to your students is to enact scenes they believe are representative of the character chosen, and they will have to use their imagination to do so.

Explore areas where students thought they made mistakes, and how they pushed through those mistakes and made them part of the scene.

Mindset # 3.) Make Your Partner(s) Look Good

Suggested Game -- Gift Giving

Improv is entirely dependent upon collaboration in order for it to be successful. Often times, individuals will step up to do their scene or enactment and have nothing to say.

This will probably happen when you try the game mentioned under mindset #2, and you’ll see students be vulnerable with the individuals around them in attempt to be a part of the enactment.

This is when it’s imperative that others in the group make their partner(s) look good, and support them when it appears like they have nothing to say. This strategy goes hand-in-hand with capitalizing on perceived mistakes, and utilizing the “yes, and” mindset.

Making their partner(s) look good is something that will enable your students to discover the gift in any social interaction they have with someone, and empower the individuals they choose to have relationships with.

Being in a vulnerable situation where they feel like they have nothing to offer to their surroundings is something they will experience themselves as well. Recognizing that they are not the only one who goes through these types of experiences will be key in their own confidence, and also their willingness to be understanding of when others are experiencing those vulnerable situations.

What better way to bring this mindset to your classroom than by playing an improv game that focuses on scenes or enactments where one individual gives an imaginary gift to another? The individual receiving the gift offers something else to the situation as well. For example, maybe one partner says “Hey, I got you this box of chocolates,” and the other says “Thanks! Now, I have something to give to my significant other for Valentine’s Day.”

The idea is that each partner is (a either excited to give the gift, or receive it, and (b that once a gift is received, it is being built upon without judgement, or preclusions of any sort.

Put your students on the spot with this game by having them choose the gift they are going to give based on how they hold the imaginary gift in their hands, so that it isn’t defined by any premeditation. This will ensure a genuine response by both parties involved, and make it more fun. There are many strategies you can use to beef this game up as well, and it’s a pretty popular improv game you can learn more about on the Internet.

At the end, explore students’ responses to one another, and how being enthusiastic about what people offer is something that can move beyond the improv space, and into their daily interactions.

Don’t Forget to Take Time to Reflect

How Do Improv Mindsets Encourage Creativity, Ideation and Empathy?

While improv is a fun and engaging way to bring empathy, creativity and ideation activities to your classroom, it’s important that you and your students reflect on the process in order to maximize the effectiveness.

Taking steps to explore how the mindsets above -- as well as others -- can move beyond the space of your improv activities, and into the daily lives of your students, will be an important conversation to have. It’s also important to move beyond just verbal reflection though, and get students to write their reflections down -- the power of writing can never be understated, but storytelling is another blog topic. The point is, reflect with both the written and spoken word.

What areas of their lives would these mindsets be beneficial? What are some recent examples of where they could have utilized some of those mindsets, both with each other, and away from school as well? How can they see themselves implementing these mindsets into their daily and academic lives? How can they challenge those around them to be more empathetic to them? Where can they be assertive with others when someone is not using the mindsets covered above?

There are a wealth of questions you can explore as a class, and continue to explore as you move throughout the year and emphasize empathy.


Empathy is an ability that is often forgotten or undervalued. While seeking our own goals we often forget to care about the goals of others, and lose sight of the power in relationships.

Tasking your students to be cognizant of their relationships with others will not only help them develop deep and meaningful relationships with people throughout their lives, but will also help them navigate the tricky environments involved in future careers.

Without empathy for others, humans would be cold, and encased by a hard exterior, as vulnerable relationships built on empathy are some of the most fulfilling experiences we get to feel and see throughout life.

Challenge your students to understand the power of empathy for others by using some classic improv mindsets for fodder in your learning environment.

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