COVID-19 UPDATE: my Midtown Manhattan office is currently closed. I am available for online therapy sessions (for NY residents only) via a secure video platform.

In last week’s blog post I wrote about why SEL skills are so important, and offered 6 simple ways to get started. Today I’m excited to speak about music as a powerful and accessible tool to help kids develop these all-important skills.

Just to refresh, social-emotional learning consists of developing skills in 5 different areas – self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. The arts are great tools for developing social-emotional skills, since they are based on cooperative creativity and play. In order to successfully play music, improvise a skit, or paint a mural with others, good self-awareness/management and relationship skills are a must.

But where to start? Music holds a lot of possibilities, but also a lot of unknown. So start small – and start at the beginning with self-awareness and self-management (sometimes better known as self-regulation).

The musical experiences that may help your child develop self-awareness and self-management skills will vary widely from child to child, depending on their age and verbal ability, and whatever else might be going on at the time (school vacations have a way of throwing kids off, for example). If you try something and it doesn’t work, don’t give up! Take a deep breath (modeling, right?), give some thought later on to why it didn’t work as well as you might have liked, and try again (either later or on another day). If you have not really used music consistently with your child as part of a daily routine, it may be worth noticing what music they respond to. That alone will give you a lot of information.

Here are some of my ideas – feel free to adapt them as you see fit for your child or the children you work with.

  1. Deep breathing. I have done this with kids as young as 2 all the way through to teenagers of 18 (and adults too!). Model a deep breath in and out for your child, do 5-10 together and see if anything shifts. The breath is always with us – let’s use it. Some variations: exhale like the wind, inhale like sipping through a straw, add sounds to the exhale (perhaps favorite animal sounds?), see who can hold the exhale the longest.
  2. Sing about the emotions. For a younger child, this may be something like rewriting the words to “if you’re happy and you know it”. Emotions have to be named to feel safe and understandable. How can you finish this sentence? – “if you’re sad and you know it…” For an older child, use a different song or perhaps improvise.
  3. Personalized playlists. I don’t generally recommend one type of music over another, as I really believe that we are all so different, and what works for one person or on a specific day (or moment!) is not true for another. But I do believe in personalized playlists. This can be a great activity to share with your child – explore familiar and unfamiliar genres. Maybe create a playlist for when they feel sad, or mad, or when they need to calm down, focus on homework, or get ready for bed. The possibilities are endless, and there is no one right answer! Remember that music can hold and express uncomfortable emotions (sadness, jealousy, fear) and that’s perfectly okay.
  4. Mindfulness. This will different for a teen, who may be able to follow a short guided imagery/relaxation script, than for a 3 year old, who might really love the game “I hear with my little ear”. Mindfulness can look different in different settings and with different people – the important part is the active, open attention on the present moment. Sometimes just listening to a favorite song, without doing anything else at the same time, can be a great exercise in mindfulness.
  5. Explore a new instrument or song together. Listen to Yanni or Mozart, or lift the lid of the piano in the corner and play a few notes. Improvising is an important life skill, and doing it with another person helps children learn to read non-verbal cues, take turns, and manage frustration.

Hopefully, these ideas got your creative juices flowing! Remember – start small, and don’t give up! Just like we need to exercise consistently to lose weight or increase energy, kids need to practice SEL skills consistently to feel more grounded and connected on a consistent basis.

I’d love to hear how you’ve used music (or other arts!) to address SEL skills – feel free to leave me a comment below. If you’re a parent or grandparent, I’d love to offer you more support via coaching services. If you’re an educator, therapist, or administrator, I offer interactive presentations and workshops for professionals/parents about SEL skills, mindfulness, and more. Feel free to contact me directly with any questions or to arrange a free 20 minute phone consultation.

I’d like to end with this quote by Maria Montessori, an innovative physician and educator – “Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.”

Here’s to small, consistent changes to help the children in our lives reach their greatest potential!