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How to Use Music as a Social Emotional Learning Tool

February 18, 2022

Parents and teachers agree that social emotional learning (SEL) makes a difference. Research proves that students participating in SEL programs displayed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school. Social emotional skills, like recognizing and managing emotions, practicing kindness and empathy with peers, making decisions and communicating effectively, are simply invaluable. Wondering how to integrate SEL at home or in your classroom? Like art, music can be used as a social emotional learning tool. 

The Power of Music

Music is a language people of all different ages and backgrounds speak. Just consider how a certain tune can take us back to special moments and memories… 

Research continues to uncover benefits that music lessons provide to young, developing minds. For instance, one study noted that “music improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater and dance” and that “kids who take music lessons have better cognitive skills and school grades and are more conscientious, open and ambitious.” Another study concluded that young babies who listened intently to melodies became more sensitive to the rhythms of spoken language, and also improved their abilities to focus. Music really has the capacity to touch every soul, especially children with special needs. 

The Power of Music for Children with Special Needs

Music offers endless opportunities for creative interaction making it a powerful teaching tool for children with special needs, like Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, childhood apraxia of speech, cerebral palsy or other learning disabilities. For many children with special needs, words and expression can present an enormous challenge. Music, however, has the power to bridge this gap. Hans Christian Anderson said it best, “where words fail, music speaks.” Music allows children with special needs to share their emotions and communicate without the burden of using words. 

For instance, my son Guion typically listens to “happy” music either because he’s in a good mood and wants to stay that way or he’s feeling down and the music helps lift him out of a mood. Right now, his top three go-to happy songs are Happier by Marshmello, Glorious by Adam Friedman, and Fancy Like by Walker Hayes. When I drive Guion to school, he is the DJ and sings and dances in his seat all the way there. It definitely makes for a fun ride!    

All in all, the power of music cannot be underestimated as a teaching tool. It enhances cognition, provides comfort, improves memory, helps with mood regulation, and can even reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.  Let’s put the power of music to work in our homes and classrooms! 

How to Use Music as a Social Emotional Learning Tool

Because music is such an effective tool for the mind and emotions, music and SEL go hand-in-hand. Here are a few simple activities to integrate music as a social emotional learning tool in your home or classroom. 

  1. Make music together.

Whether tapping out beats with wooden spoons, clapping hands, singing along to a song, or playing rhythmic instruments, group music-making encourages kids to work with others as an “ensemble.” It presents an opportunity to work together toward a common goal, which fosters important social skills, like empathy, respect and collaboration. When making music, children are challenged to watch their peers for subtle cues to timing, volume and expressiveness – the same cues we use for reading others’ emotions and expressions in social settings.  

  1. Listen mindfully. 

As mentioned above, songs tend to evoke certain emotions and memories. Select a song, play it aloud, and ask the children to explain or draw how the music makes them feel or what it reminds them of. This is a simple musical activity that can be integrated into any classroom lesson, at home and even in the car!  

  1. Play musical stop and go. 

Need an easy way to help little ones get the wiggles out while also teaching them how to self-regulate? Play musical stop and go! It can be an indoor, outdoor or virtual learning activity. Play a song and let the kids move and dance around until you stop the music. This teaches kids cues to start and stop their bodies while having fun expressing themselves through dancing. Plus, research shows that for children with special needs, dancing to music without instructions can improve their overall gross motor development and mobility. 

  1. Listen to music that celebrates various cultures to enhance inclusivity. 

You can never share multicultural tunes too early! Children may not fully put the pieces together until they are older, but cultural awareness starts much earlier. Music can be a fun way for kids to explore other cultures and customs. By learning about different musical traditions, students learn to accept differences in others and celebrate diversity. 

Sing Along with Guion The Lion

Music is universal – just like the message in the children’s book Guion The Lion. That’s why we brought Guion’s story to life through a song! From reading to listening to music, children learn in many different ways. The Guion The Lion song is the perfect accompaniment to the book and serves as an additional outlet for exploring and learning about ourselves and the world we live in. Download the lyrics and listen to the Guion The Lion song here!

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