The Connection Between Music and Social Emotional Learning

Veteran’s Voice

With children well into their second year of online schooling, it is clear that the future of education is a hybrid model. One of the biggest and most important reasons why we’re all rooting for students to get safely back in the physical classroom, however, is that schools are centres for social emotional learning (SEL).

The construct of social emotional learning is simple: it isn’t an extra component to add to an existing syllabus; it is a foundational learning tool on which everything else rests. It allows students to be self-aware, self-regulatory, empathetic towards others, and responsible with decision-making.

While SEL is crucial, many educators find themselves wondering if it is possible to impart its values without seeming overly preachy or dull. Here’s where the value of music education can come in. Using songs from around the world and musical activities can help children develop in the five most crucial areas of SEL – all while having a great time.

I have had the good fortune of working with students between pre-primary and college ages for over a decade now, and I’ve directly seen the impact that music has had on their well-being, overall confidence, and personal growth. In the areas of social emotional learning, here are some ways in which structured music education helps:

1 – Self-awareness, or the ability to recognise their own strengths, understand when they’re performing at their best, and what stresses them out and why: In my experience, songwriting is one of the most effective ways to help learners of all ages develop self-awareness. One of the most important exercises in songwriting, the daily object writing exercise, gives students a one-word prompt and asks them to write about it using all the senses (including how they feel about the object) for at least 10 minutes. At first, it can be a little hard to articulate how you feel about something as insignificant as a table. With time, however, this exercise makes you better at expressing how you feel and understanding the full range of your emotions a little better. While songwriting has been well-received and effective among children of all ages, it has had especially great mental health benefits in pre-teen and teenage students.

It is a myth that songwriting is a hopelessly complex process, best left to the great musicians of our time. The reality is that it is a wonderful community building tool and a great skill for children to start building as early as possible.

2 – Self-management, or discipline, goal setting, and organisational skills: Usually, parents and educators tend to think of these things as “left-brained activities” that creative people shouldn’t have to worry about. The truth is that, irrespective of creative and non-creative fields, discipline and efficiency is always the best way to get anything done. And as music educators, there is a lot that we can do in helping children build this skill early on. Here are some suggestions on how to do it:

First, encourage children to set their own musical goals. What do they want to achieve, and how much time do they want to spend with it? Second, remind them that it is alright to spend time on one task to master it fully, and that taking breaks helps them approach a problem better. Finally, help them navigate performance anxiety and the possibility for errors by guiding them to come up with solutions on their own, rather than giving them your answers.

When children start reflecting on their goals, and their strengths and weaknesses early on, they learn what works best for them, and how to create a routine that brings out the best in them.

3 – Social awareness, or empathy and perception: We are no longer trying to predict what the workplace will look like decades from now. It is hard enough to project trends and automation without taking into account any big curveballs the world has to deal with. What we can say with certainty, however, is that we will always need skills like teamwork, empathy, and communication skills. And music is the best way to build these skills.

At SaPa, we introduce team activities early on. These are designed to make every child feel included, and to remind them to make their friends feel welcome, too. We also found that introducing children to lullabies from around the world helps them connect with each other in a powerful way. The idea is simple: we may look and sound different, but at the end of the day, we all like it when a soothing voice sings us to sleep.

Another way to help children build social awareness early on: teach them historically relevant songs, and explain the context behind them. We typically teach songs like We Shall Overcome, and explain how black musicians turned to music to inspire large-scale social change. It helps them start asking questions like I wonder how that made them feel, which is an important step in teaching them empathy and appreciation for diversity.

4 – Relationship skills and working with others to get work done: Conflict resolution, working with others’ strengths and weaknesses, and building team spirit will get children a long way. A great way to build this is by forming ensembles and encouraging children to work together to put out a performance. It is a hands-on lesson in navigating individual and group mistakes, handling stress, motivating each other to keep working towards a common goal, and handling disagreements as a group.

5 – Responsible decision making: How can we help children evaluate the problem at hand and start thinking about the consequences of their choices? Consistent musical routines are a great way to build discipline, and to encourage children to understand the value of consistency, making inclusive decisions, working with others, and choosing to take breaks when needed. Learning music, especially in a group setting, will help them ask the right questions early on, like: Is it a good idea to skip practice when the team is counting on me? How can I make sure that my voice and my friend’s instrument are equally heard in this performance?

Music and social emotional learning are deeply interlinked, and value and skills built extend well beyond the classroom. It is our duty, as music educators, to use music as a gateway to helping build these skills and encouraging children to apply these skills in all areas of their lives, too.

(BinduSubramaniam – The author is a singer-songwriter, author, and Founder and CEO at SaPa – Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts) 

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