A Natural Fit: Rediscovering Improvisation in Social Work

By Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW

Angelo McClain

The COVID-19 pandemic forced widespread reversion to one of social work’s original competences: improvisation. Using the skills of improvisation, social workers across the country have remade existing programs, services and practices to create COVID-responsive alternatives.

Navigating the changing circumstances in the wake of the pandemic called for combining high technical skills and social work knowledge with an improvisational ability. The early days of the COVID crisis were best characterized as “complicated and fluid.” Social workers adjusting to a given situation found themselves improvising “on the spot” with clients in new ways in the context of well-established theories and methods.

In the classic social work spirit of “meet the client where they are,” we embraced the creative necessity of the “immediate moment,” creating spontaneous solutions to meet our clients’ needs. Similar to social work, the improv framework of collaboration is rooted in deep listening and reserving judgement.

In Philadelphia, Blue Door Group and People’s Emergency Center host a three-hour comedy session for social workers called “Think on Your Feet,” which is designed to help attendees learn how to incorporate improv into their work and enhance their spontaneity and creativity.

Social work historians are not surprised by the recent embrace of improvisation. They know the founder of modern comedic improvisation was social worker Viola Spolin. She began her professional career as a settlement worker in Chicago, studying social work through Neva Boyd’s Group Work School in the 1920s. Spolin played improvisational theater games to help immigrant children from diverse backgrounds interact and acculturate into society.

Uta M. Walter, a social work and improvisation scholar at the Alice Salomon University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, has written about the intersection between social work and improvisation. Walter created a framework to look at certain aspects of social work as a kind of improvisation. She concluded that improvisation “expands our view and understanding of what social work is and does. It makes aspects visible, speakable, trainable, and researchable that otherwise go unrecognized.”

As in jazz improvisation, social workers must be in tune with every client to determine the unique rhythm and flow of the therapeutic process. Improv has a lot to do with being in the moment and listening—skills that enhance social work practice.

In pressured attempts to be a proper profession, social work drifted from its improvisational roots. But in reaction to COVID-19, social workers have recast, repositioned, and rediscovered improvisation’s natural fit within the profession.

Contact Angelo McClain at naswceo@socialworkers.org