Improv for Joy: Laughing and Learning with Developmental Exceptionalities


Adults with developmental exceptionalities  are frequently told “You can’t”. “You can’t participate. You can’t do what neurotypical people get to do. You can’t have that opportunity…” My Improv for Joy class is a a bright, bold, shining example of what someone with a developmental exceptionality can do, when doors are opened and someone says “Yes, you can.

Here is a video of my sister Lauren on stage telling her favourite joke.

Last April, I had my first Improv for Joy class at Community of Hearts, the life learning centre for adults with developmental exceptionalities in Guelph. Our Improv Incubator: Level One program was adapted ahead of time to accommodate those enrolled in the program and I was expecting to successfully get through about 50% of my planned curriculum.

Boy was I wrong.

The students in my Improv for Joy class were more than capable of learning what I was prepared to teach - in fact, in some situations, they blew through content and were ready and eager for the next improv challenge. Each time I finished explaining an activity, students jumped up to play. Curious and excited to learn, they asked lots of questions and were always ready to support classmates who needed a little bit of extra encouragement to participate.

Sure, it takes some time to grasp the rules for each improv game, but it was never about playing the game perfectly. It was about trying something unfamiliar and laughing about it together, no matter what. I was reminded of something important I had come to learn early in my improv career (but sometimes forget): improv isn’t about being a great comedian, it’s about supporting each other and having a great time.

If you ever feel like your improv game has lost its sense of play, come hang out with me at Community of Hearts during class. You’ll see more high-fives and encouraging embraces per minute than in any other improv class you’ve been part of. You’ll see adults who face discrimination every day because of how they appear, enthusiastically support each other to take initiative and try new things. You’ll see collaboration, active listening, dancing, and really awesome characters from our favourite movies, books and television shows. You’ll see a group of people accepting each other completely and pushing themselves to step outside of their comfort zones. You’ll see people striving for progress not perfection.

You’ll also see some darn good improv!

Improv for Joy playing parts of a whole

Improv for Joy playing parts of a whole

My experience with Improv for Joy was overwhelmingly positive and the Student Showcase in June was a highlight for my year! Now, we are in our final weeks of our second term of classes at Community of Hearts and and there’s evidence that I am not the only one seeing the impact of studying improvisation.

Non-verbal students who were also reserved in the beginning are stepping on stage first this time around. There is noticeable growth in listening, focus and celebration of other’s ideas even when there may not be full commitment to each other’s offers. The significant increase in confidence and self-esteem for returning students is demonstrated in the ways they welcome in new faces and catch them up on what has been learned so far. The changes are incredible and measurable!

“I was just so blown away at the fearlessness and the openness of the participants to embrace the instructor, embrace the curriculum and embrace trying something new. It’s so clear to me that improv is vital to learning life skills. I am seeing confidence skyrocketing, social skills improving significantly, and a willingness to engage with others where there was none before. The skills Community of Hearts participants are gaining in program with The Making-Box are necessary and transferable to all areas of life.” - Jerushia Allin, Program Manager at Community of Hearts

“I felt like I was on a TV show! It went really well!” - Colin Howitt, Improv for Joy Participant

“Hayley met every single participant where they were at. She didn’t push, she had grown to understand their likes, their comfort levels, their verbal skills and helped every single person shine. She supported them to take risks and that’s what life is.” - Parent of Improv for Joy participant

“In addition to focus and attention, I really saw a difference in confidence. We support social engagement in program via a morning check-in.  Those who had been in improv were more comfortable sharing about themselves and asking their peers questions.” - Alec Cook, Life Skills Educator at Community of Hearts

“I think it was great! It was AWESOME!” - Kyle Gregg, Improv for Joy Participant

Our most recent Improv for Joy Student Showcase is on Saturday, October 27th. If this show is anything like the last one we’re all in for a fabulous performance put on by very talented and courageous performers. If this show is anything like the last one, it will be a celebration of what can happen when we say “Yes, you can”.

2018 Improv for Joy Photo.jpeg

Improv for Joy will be returning to Community of Hearts in January, 2019. Please contact Jerushia Allin for details on programming available at Community of Hearts.

Phone: 519-826-9056

If a person with a developmental exceptionality wants to engage in the community in a way that incorporates joy into their life, then improv is the place to start.” - Jerushia Allin, Program Manager at Community of Hearts

Looking to bring an improv workshop to your organization or special needs classroom? Hayley Kellett has facilitated Improv for Education workshops for KidsAbility, Community of Hearts, Power of Being You and has a long history of teaching improv to youth on the spectrum.

E-mail her at for details.