Brooke H. DeBettignies and Thalia R. Goldstein. Improvisational Theater Classes Improve Self-Concept. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, (2019).


The study investigated the effect of improvisational theater classes on children’s self-concept. Fifty-two elementary school children participated in an experimental design study. Children from eight to 11 years old who were enrolled in an after school program were randomly assigned to take improv classes or study hall, switching assignments halfway through the academic year. Self-concept was tested three times throughout the study using the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale, Second Edition (Piers-Harris 2). Results suggest that educational theater in the form of improvisational classes has a positive effect on children’s self-concept, specifically for those children beginning with relatively lower self-concept.

Key Findings:

  • The study revealed improvement in self-concept scores for children enrolled in improv classes, but only for children in Group 1 who began with lower levels of self-concept scores despite random assignment.
  • Children in Group 2 who began with higher levels of self-concept scores, did not show significant improvement in self-concept scores following participation in improv classes.
  • At midyear, Group 1’s gains aligned with the control group’s gains, and gains were maintained over time. These gains can be seen in testing administered at the end of the year.

Significance of the Findings:

The results of the study provide preliminary empirical support for the positive effect of improvisational theater classes on children’s self-concept. Results showed that children who start out with relatively lower self-concept scores have the ability to catch up with their peers who have a higher level of self-concept through improvisational theater education. Further, results indicated that children maintain gains made in self-concept scores across time. The authors of the study hypothesize that Improvement in self-concept via improvisational theater may come from improv’s specific emphasis on cognitive constructs that underpin self-concept, such as working in agreement, spontaneity, commitment and being present in the moment (e.g., through maintained focus, active listening and observing, eye contact and emotional presence).


Fifty-two elementary school children participated in an experimental design study. Children were from eight to 11 years old, were enrolled in fourth or fifth grade, attended an after-school program, and reflected multiple ethnicities and relatively low socioeconomic status. Students were randomly assigned to Group 1 or Group 2. During the first semester, Group 1 engaged in improv classes followed by a show, while Group 2 participated in study hall. During the second semester, the groups switched; Group 2 engaged in improv classes followed by a show, while Group 1 participated in study hall.

Students were tested at three time points: At the beginning of the school year, at midyear and at the end of the school year. The Piers-Harris 2 test was given by administrators blind to the study’s hypotheses and to group assignments. Lastly, the total scores were analyzed.

Improv classes spanned 12 weeks and classes took place for one hour each week. Classes were followed by an improv show of learned short form games. The instructor was both a professional improviser and improv instructor. The curriculum ― developed by the instructor ― consisted of short form games and techniques designed to introduce the fundamentals of improv (e.g., acting without a script) and to facilitate spontaneous ensemble collaboration. Identical curriculum and lesson plans were used for both semesters.

Limitations of the Research:

  • Although the six Piers-Harris 2 subscale scores superficially appeared to mirror total scores patterns, the sample size limited the statistical power necessary for further analyses.
  • While the sample represented multiple ethnicities and relatively low socioeconomic status, and largely represented East Asian ethnicities, replication of different ethnicities and socioeconomic status would be necessary to address generalizability.
  • With any performing arts curriculum, variations stemming from participant characteristics and group dynamics will ultimately occur. Further, improv calls for spontaneous and unique happenings inside the curricular structure. These variations are a positive for participants but present limitations for treatment replicability.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • Would future studies explicitly designed to compare low versus high initial self-concept scores confirm initial level of self-concept as a variable?
  • How would improv classes culminating with a show compare to improv classes without a show?
  • Would gains in self-concept hold over longer periods of time than in the present study, or might repeated exposure to improv be required for longer sustainability?
  • Would adolescents and adults show a similar pattern of gains in self-concept?
  • What are other potential benefits from improvisational classes?