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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Use Music to Develop Kids' Skills and Character

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
Is there any good reason why we don't use music more often when we teach social, emotional, and character development (SECD) to children? If you've answered yes to the first three questions and no to the last one, then read on!

The Power of Song

I asked Don McMannis, an expert on children's music, to share with me some of his ideas about the appeal of music and its unique potential for teaching young children SECD skills. He responded, "Music has positive affects on people's emotions and creativity. When we sing together, we synchronize our breathing and feel more connected.

"Music is also an effective, almost magical medium for learning and retaining information," he adds. "It activates three different centers of the brain at the same time: language, hearing, and rhythmic motor control. By inducing emotions, it also creates a heightened condition of awareness and mental acuity. Words paired with music are far easier to retain. As an example, most of us can remember the words and meanings of songs we haven't heard for years. Isn't it interesting how you still remember your ABCs?"

The latest work by Oliver Sacks, a world-renowned neuroscientist, supports Don's views. In Sacks's 2007 book, Musicophilia, he writes, "The perception of music and the emotions it can stir is not solely dependent on memory, and music does not have to be familiar to exert its emotional power. I have seen deeply demented patients weep or shiver as they listen to music they have never heard before, and I think that they can experience the entire range of feelings the rest of us can, and that dementia, at least at these times, is no bar to emotional depth. Once one has seen such responses, one knows that there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling."

Many of us have emotional experiences and memories that are deeply tied to music. So let's put this modality to work to improve our kids' emotional development. If you go to Dr. Mac Music, you will see some excellent examples of using music to teach SECD. The most recent is Ready to Rock Kids, Vol. 3, for ages 4-9. It's a great example of someone taking the research evidence and putting it into practice.

Don McMannis and his creative team have created original songs for the CD, and the lyrics are designed to build skills and character. There are also many complementary activities to help you reinforce the messages in the songs via a variety of modalities: writing, speaking, acting, drawing, building, creating, and movement. The songs and activities also reinforce the everyday benefits of characteristics such as respect, responsibility, and honesty and of abilities such as resolving conflicts nonviolently and facing and overcoming fears.

These are the kinds of materials that you can use across the curriculum. And you can use them in unstructured or transition times or in after-school programs. Some teachers like to use a song to start the day, focusing on one song for the week.

Regardless, you might be surprised by how quickly kids learn the words and meanings of the songs. The songs, of course, provide messages and skill development that students can then recall and focus on to support a positive classroom climate.

Learning Through Lyrics

Here is an example: First, look at this excerpt from a song, minus the wonderfully catchy tune. Talk It Out teaches children to use their words to resolve conflicts with others. The song makes a subtle but very important point: It can be as bad to ignore issues as it can be to confront them violently.

It's a magical moment, just like a miracle's occurred / It's a magical moment, whenever everyone feels heard.

Instead of how we blame, or turn and walk away / Instead of calling names, or pretending that it's all OK / Instead of how we frown, or make a yucky face / Why don't we look around and find a magic place.

(Chorus) And, sit down and talk it out / Yeah, sit down and talk it out / 'Cause what's been missin' is a little listening / So come on and talk it out.

It does not take a lot of imagination to see how this song can lead students and teachers to create a special talk-it-out space in the classroom.

Here is another terrific song activity, called the Listening Blues, which teaches kids the importance of listening: Pair children up and have them talk to each other at the same time, with neither child listening to the other. (For example, you can have them talk about what they did over the weekend.) Then ask them to repeat what their partner said.

Next, have them speak one at a time, listening carefully to each other, and check again to see if they can repeat their partner's stories. Afterward, have a group discussion around the following questions:

  • Were you better at reporting back after speaking one at a time?
  • How could you tell if someone was listening to you?
  • How did it feel to be listened to and understood?
  • Why is it sometimes so hard to keep from interrupting?
  • What are some of the most important times to make sure others are listening to you?
  • What are some ways to be sure others have listened to you and understood what you have said?

Of course, the activity has value just as it is, but the synergy of linking it to a song will enhance the message for children. As Oliver Sacks points out, music is so fundamental to how we live and learn that it makes a lot of sense to incorporate it more into our SECD instruction.

Perhaps you are already including music-based, SECD-related projects in your classroom. Please comment and share them!

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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Denise's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an English teacher in an elementary school in Japan and use music regularly in my classroom for English skill development, but this article gave me another idea, to use it for SECD. The lyrics of a well chosen song would teach the skill of listening-for-meaning and also stimulate discussion about an issue or topic that may have come up in class. I'm looking forward to trying this out in my class and getting the students to talk more. Thank you!

Rebecca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I skimmed this article briefly and decided to print it out to read it tonight when I have more time. I have recently taken a movement in the classroom graduate class. It was one of the best classes I have ever taken. I figure if movement is important, music is too. I used to put notes into a song to help me understand it better. I am currently taking another graduate class. One of my assignments is to "blog" with others. This is my first time doing this, if you could respond that I would really appreciate it. Have a wonderful day!

Kimberly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a sixth grade Language Arts and Social Studies teacher in Pennsylvania, and I use music to teach many important concepts in my classroom. Music is an important element in my life, and I know that music is also very important to my students as well. They are developing into adolescents, and they really relate to some of the music that is out there today. I have used some of their favorite songs to teach elements of poetry, descriptive language, figurative language, as well as other important concept. I also think that having music playing during work on projects can be beneficial to some students.

J. Elli's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a language arts teacher at the high school level. Earlier this year, I spent some time teaching my students study skills. I shared with them a song I remember from 5th grade "Fifty, Nifty United States." To this day, I know all fifty states in alphabetical order because of a song I learned 26 years ago. I would love to add the element of music to my language arts classes. Do you have any materials for this that you can lead me to?

J. Elli's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a language arts teacher at the high school level. I would love it if someone could post some ideas or resources for incorporating music into the language arts curriculum.

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