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Improv as a way to treat stuttering

“Break the Blocks” program developed at Northwestern to help build confidence in young people
School of Communication speech-language pathologist Elisha Boxer Magnifico (center) co-leads a series of improvisational workshops called "Break the Blocks" to help young people who stutter find confidence in talking in public. Photo by Justin Barbin

President Joe Biden, Steve Harvey, Nicole Kidman, Tiger Woods, Samuel L. Jackson: all recognizable names. These famous people, who have made their mark in politics, sports or Hollywood, have something in common. They all stuttered.

Experts say while a stutterers’ speech may improve over time, the condition most likely still impacts their daily life in some way.

The National Stuttering Association reports the speech disorder affects about 1% of the global population, though about 5% of children — perhaps even more — go through a period of stuttering. Stuttering in preschool age children often coincides with the language explosion that happens when their motor system cannot keep up with the expansion of language they’re trying to use. For children who don’t “grow out of it,” the condition can be especially challenging as they age. It often leads to teasing, bullying, social isolation and can cause emotional distress and erode self-confidence.

Treating the speech disorder can be difficult, but there’s a powerful tool that has been increasingly recognized for its ability to empower people who stutter — improvisation.

Breaking the blocks and creating confidence

Born out of an effort to collaborate across disciplines, School of Communication speech-language pathologist and clinical assistant professor Elisha Boxer Magnifico partnered with David Catlin, the head of acting in the department of theatre to develop “Break the Blocks” — a series of free workshops, open to the community, that uses improvisation to build confidence in young people. The workshops are part of Northwestern’s guiding principles to strengthen our community.

The concept is relatively simple. During a series of three weekly workshops, about a dozen participants, ages 12 to 18, are invited to take part in a range of improv scenarios. They take turns acting, talking in front of each other and building off each other’s confidence. It’s a learning experience not only for the young people involved, but also graduate students from the Northwestern University Center for Audiology, Speech, Language and Learning and undergraduate theater students who assist in the 90-minute sessions.

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We want them to be able to stutter confidently and not have it be a negative thing.”

Elisha Boxer Magnifico
Speech-language pathologist

Magnifico says the goal is to create an environment where each participant is encouraged, but not required, to take chances.

“We want to break down the blocks and the walls of communication that some of the improvisers might feel in their everyday life,” Magnifico said. “We want them to be able to stutter confidently and not have it be a negative thing.”

Catlin taps into his theater experience and a love for improv to lead the group through the series of games and activities.  He said the goal isn’t to create a comedy scene, however “there are many times when we all laugh together, which helps us let down our guards and be brave about jumping into play.”

Using improv to build community

The workshops aren’t just about “play.”  They’re also a chance for community building, especially for a young person who might not have ever met someone else who stutters.

“This really gives them an opportunity to realize ‘I’m not the only one out there,’” Magnifico said. “We saw participants exchanging phone numbers. Some even gravitated towards sitting next to each other after each successive week. For kids who haven’t met other kids who stuttered, that was pretty special.”

Magnifico and Catlin first offered “Break the Blocks” during a pilot run in the winter quarter.  New sessions are underway this May with a new cohort of young people. They’re still experimenting to find the right combination of class size, participant’s age range and gender to make the effort even more successful. The hope is to offer the sessions once a quarter, keep them as a free service to the community, and perhaps add a learning component for parents of children who stutter.

“A lot of these kids can feel isolated and many of the parents feel the same way because they may not have talked to another parent of someone who stutters,” Magnifico said. “I would love to find a way to add that as a component of the curriculum.”

Magnifico said she was close to tears at witnessing the breakthroughs the young people experienced during the first workshops. Catlin calls it all “inspiring.”

“That ability to feel like you’ve helped make a difference in a young person’s life through storytelling, through the act of theater, that you’ve made someone else’s world a little better makes your own world a lot better,” Catlin said. “It’s energizing as an artist to see somebody be that brave and that willing to take a risk.”