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A note from James...

For almost three decades, we’ve been facilitating improv workshops with at-risk young people at schools, youth groups and juvenile justice institutions. Combining our backgrounds in Occupational Therapy and Behavioural Science with our experience running Theatresports competitions, we’ve developed techniques for working with children with a wide range of educational needs.

Here are three tips for working with children at educational risk:

1. Keep a steady pace.

When working with at-risk students, you need to keep things moving. The activities you do should be long enough to enjoy them, but not so long that they can be sabotaged. When games are completed, the debriefs should be concise and to the point.

To do this, we’ve found it useful to over-plan with additional activities. Another idea is to have variations of games. Most of the games we play at AITS have alternative and additional rules that can be added mid-way through to keep participants on their toes and reduce the chance of them working out the formula (and how to disrupt it).

Game suggestion: What Are You Doing?

This improv game has lots of opportunities to have extra rules added. To play the basic game, one player enters the circle and mimes an action. The next player along in the circle enters it and asks the first “what are you doing?”. Player One shouldn’t say what they’re doing, but what they’d like Player Two to do. After a while of playing the basic rules, you can suggest some variations: that actions must begin with a letter given by Player One; or that should exist in a location determined by them (eg. “What are you doing…in the library?”)

2. Find the leader.

Look out for the leader in the group. You should work to champion them, let them win and get laughs. In doing so, you’ll have more chance of getting them on your side. If you can achieve this, the rest of the group will have permission to do the same.

Choose an activity that gives the participants a chance to be in the spotlight, but that also provides an ‘easy win’.

Game suggestion : Yes, Let’s!

This game offers the students a chance to take the lead for a short moment. In it, students walk around the space. At any time, someone can call out an instruction for the rest of the group to do (for example: “let’s all do star jumps”). The rest of the group should shout “yes, lets!” and then perform the action. After 10 seconds, someone else can shout a new instruction.

3. Reframe risk.

At-risk students - as even the name suggests - have a background of negative risk-taking: often resulting in misbehaviour, violence or drug abuse. The challenge for us as improv teachers is to demonstrate the empowering nature of positive risk-taking and failure in everyday life.

To do this, we can play games that practice risk-taking:

As workshop leaders, we’re not off the hook. We need to take risks ourselves in the session - trying games that may or may not work - and adapting to meet the new course. If we presume one route and don’t adjust to the changes in group dynamic, we can lose the focus of the group. That doesn’t mean that our steps shouldn’t be carefully considered. We need to constantly read the group and adjusting the direction before things become stale.

When planned well, improv can be the perfect tool for empowering at-risk students - giving them a voice, skills and confidence to make positive choices. Why not plan a Theatresports session of your own?

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