Many educators embrace social and emotional learning (SEL) for teaching coping skills. Like visual art activities, music education can play a role in healing, particularly when it’s paired with deep breathing exercises. Music is readily available from sources like YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora, which makes it easy to integrate into the classroom, and research shows that general music program activities like improvisation and identifying emotion through music are effective as a form of social and emotional learning.
Studies show that children as young as 3 can notice emotions in music and can even recognize “happy” and “sad” in musical excerpts that are just 0.5 second long. These findings are the backbone of practical applications for using music to support SEL in the classroom—and of the following activities that help preschool children learn how to name and regulate their emotions.
Muddy Waters’s ‘Louisiana Blues’ and Feeling Sad
Known as the father of Chicago blues, Muddy Waters was an American blues singer-songwriter and musician. His piece “Louisiana Blues” is a classic in the genre, reflecting sadness and hardship.
How to use it: Using color cards or colorful objects, ask students to recognize the colors. With the color blue, stop and say, “Some people say they feel this color. They say they feel blue or they have ‘the blues.’ What do you think they mean by that?”
After the students answer, explain that the blues is a type of music created by African Americans in the southern United States to express sadness and hardship. Explain that sometimes life is hard, it’s OK to feel upset by that, and music can help people get through hard times. As the students listen to “Louisiana Blues,” have them tap a drum or rhythm sticks to keep the beat. Then they can reflect on a time when they felt the blues after putting their instruments away.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Feeling Strong Emotions
With its iconic fate knocking motif, Beethoven’s Fifth can prompt awareness of strong emotions.
How to use it: Tell your students to give themselves a big, tight hug. Say, “Hugs are nice. But tight feelings are also a sign that you have a strong feeling. Let’s listen to the music together. If you hear a strong emotion, squeeze the ball.” Pass out squishy objects, like stress balls or stuffed animals. As students listen to the first two minutes of the symphony, have them squeeze the object when they hear a strong emotion. When the music stops, take two minutes to reflect on how to alleviate sensations of tightness brought on by strong feelings: “We just listened to the Fifth Symphony by Ludwig Van Beethoven, which was written for an orchestra—a group of musicians playing together. I could tell you felt the strong emotions in it when you squeezed the ball. Did your hands feel better after letting go of the ball?”
Tell students that just as their hands felt better when they let go of the ball, they can let go of the strong feeling inside when it happens: They can let go of their strong feelings by taking belly breaths and using words to get help. Since loud crying and angry screaming (temper tantrums) are common in communication among young children, teaching them how to self-soothe and use expressive language prompts growth toward self-regulation.
‘Jambo Bwana’ and Greetings
Research shows that for autistic children and those who have special needs or language delays, dancing to music without explicit instructions can improve their overall gross motor development and mobility. The Swahili traditional song “Jambo Bwana,” a piece about saying hello and sharing joy and happiness, works well in this context.
How to use it: Tell students that the song is about saying hello and is from the country of Kenya. Explain that world music includes music in different languages and from different cultures. Ask, “Can you say ‘hello’ in Swahili? Try saying ‘Jambo Bwana’” (“Hello, Sir”). After the students answer, pass out props like colorful scarves (for easier self-expression with smaller motor movements), or forgo props while the students dance to the song. They can then share reflections about how saying hello and seeing people they love can bring happiness.
‘Yesterday’ and Feeling Disappointment
The Beatles song “Yesterday” can prompt students to reflect on a time when something went wrong or they made a mistake. When children recall this experience with you, it becomes a powerful interaction—a moment when you deliberately connect with a child while guiding their learning.
How to use it: Begin by telling children about a made-up recent event where there was disappointment; it could be based on an event in the classroom. For example, “Bella was looking forward to the class field trip to the zoo, but it was canceled when it rained. How do you think she felt? Let’s listen to this piece of music at the art table and draw a picture of the feeling. Do any of you like rock-and-roll music? This is the genre of music that rock bands play—groups of musicians that have a guitarist, drummer, bass player, and singer. Usually the music is upbeat and makes you feel excited. But this song by the Beatles is about feeling melancholy and remembering a time when you made a mistake or did something wrong.” Play “Yesterday” and prompt children to illustrate a time when they experienced disappointment or things didn’t work out as planned.
‘Águas de Março’ and Mindfulness
The jazz/bossa nova song “Águas de Março” (“The Waters of March”), by the Brazilian songwriter Antônio Carlos Jobim, works well when teaching students that being calm can improve their ability to focus on their surroundings, as well as how to embrace mindfulness.
How to use it: Ask students to take a deep belly breath, perhaps while ringing a singing bowl. Tell students, “When we feel calm, our bodies are relaxed. And when we’re relaxed, we can notice things we didn’t notice before. Let’s listen to this song and take deep breaths to become more mindful of our surroundings. This style of music is a form of Brazilian jazz called bossa nova, and it has a smooth, sophisticated sound that people can dance or relax to while listening to it.”
When the song is done, move on to an activity to test students’ new and improved awareness. Tell the students, “Now that we have calm and relaxed bodies, we can see things even better than we did before. Let’s go on a scavenger hunt to find the objects from the song in our room.” Students can go around the room to find objects mentioned in the song (a stick, stone, a hair pin, and a flower).