Feeling That Tune: The Connection of Music and Social-Emotional Learning

This post was originally created in collaboration with the Flocabulary team as a post on their site’s blog.

Our emotions have long been intertwined with music. I’m sure you have songs that are innately connected to meaningful moments in your life. There is a soundtrack to your breakups and auditory connections from your saddest losses to your greatest victories. And then there are the songs that you just can’t help but dance to as they pump you full of energy. That is why, when remote or in-person, I have made sure to take dance breaks with my students and even bust out our own songs about how we’re feeling with a little help from Flocabulary.

These are universal truths we all know even without understanding endorphins or studying the vast ways music benefits us or being actively aware of the chemical changes it elicits to supercharge our faculties. We know music is therapeutic. We know it motivates us to action, heightens our emotions, and provides an escape from our weariness and troubles. The rhythms of a song mimic our heartbeats and let us know we are still alive and express our feelings in tragedy more than words alone ever could. And so, any educator worth their salt will strive to tap into the power of music and its connections to SEL (social and emotional learning). Gladly a platform like Flocabulary makes that easy with hip-hop songs connected to SEL lessons.

Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.

-Alphonse De Lamartine

The Music in Me

As a musician, an educator of students with autism, and someone on the spectrum himself; I can assure you that music can connect to deep places in our brains that simple words cannot. You need not read Watson’s The Biology of Musical Performance and Performance-Related Injury or my horrendously boring master’s thesis on the benefits of atonal music for decreasing stimming behaviors to know music’s power. You just hit play on that stereo and simply look at the reaction on the faces of children with developmental delays or who have experienced trauma and you immediately know its impact.

Playing drums with a student

I live in Queens, NY, America’s most diverse county, and I teach in New York City’s District 75, citywide special education for students with moderate to higher needs disabilities. My city and my district were hit harder than anywhere else early in the pandemic. And, of course, we’ve heard the discussions about students faltering with what some deemed subpar instruction in those moments we were at a distance. So, of course,  the question gets asked, “Is it worth spending the limited amount of time we have for learning about music and social connections?”I would counter though, with as much as the staff, the children, and their families were suffering here from our very real personal losses; how could we not incorporate the social and emotional needs of the community into our everyday practices? Anything else would’ve rung hollow, and any attempt at “normal learning” would’ve been severely hampered by the very real stress we were all feeling. So we entered the world of pandemic SEL like many others. But we were gladly well-equipped already with my district’s subscription to Flocabulary and now one for Nearpod to be used in the midst of distance learning. We didn’t know what we would need, but I will say that the responsiveness of a company like Flocabulary to my district’s specific student provided a little light in a dark moment. They had also come up with new ways to make the platform more accessible for our students with disabilities, and I had hope that we could build on that to meet any structural or emotional needs for our families.

Meaningful SEL in a Pandemic

Let me be clear, my district, due to the needs of our students-many with emotional/behavioral disorders connected to past traumas, had long engaged in connecting instruction to the social needs of our students.  Now though in the midst of personal losses, economic hardships, and social upheaval; many schools are taking a renewed look at innately connecting SEL (social-emotional learning) into their learning programs.

And there is value in teaching the whole person and valuing character and not just instructing in isolated topics, something that was recognized long ago by ancient scholars like Plato and Confucius. But we can’t get caught up in some lightly painted-over SEL on top of an otherwise mundane curriculum. That will not suffice.

So when we dive into social awareness and conflict resolution, if we do it without considering the broader cultural connections and history of injustice for our black, indigenous, or other students of often marginalized groups; then we do a disservice to everyone. We can’t just make SEL about everyone being colorblind friends, because that ignores the world our students currently experience. Dena Simmons describes those SEL efforts as “white supremacy with a hug”. We must dive into a meaningful exploration of our broader sociopolitical context and we can even tie it to larger restorative justice initiatives happening within our organization. Then we can empower practices fueled by real data on behavioral and academic outcomes in the school in a manner that is connected to the larger goals and vision of the school. And, sure, it’s difficult to know where to begin. But I was again able to look to Flocabulary with a range of diverse artists in their songs, a lens towards equity and inclusion, and a series of lessons on racial and social justice to provide a starting point for difficult but necessary discussions.  And it is in those moments that SEL can have a real impact on our students who are poorly served through the all too prevalent factory model of education.

Music & SEL

SEL Overview

SEL Chart with a brain in the center

At this point, we could dive deeply into a thorough overview of SEL, its origins, and best practices, but that’s an entire article unto itself. Even so, that dive would be worth your time if you can find it. For anyone new to the topic though, let’s just begin with the basic understanding that effective SEL programs improve academic performance and positive behaviors while teaching valuable interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that will be needed throughout a student’s life. That’s why they’re worthwhile. As for how they work, it varies based on the age and needs of students. Most programs though are built around the original CASEL framework and delve into the five key skills of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Beyond that, most programs seek to provide a safe environment for open discussion while allowing for choice. The programs attempt to challenge students in a manner that will help instill confidence and promote collaboration. In the end, the most effective thing any SEL instructor can do is be an active example of positive behavior to students.

Musical Connections

So now here we are in the midst of an experience like no other. As adults, we are still struggling to navigate it emotionally. How do we respond to the loss of loved ones, isolation, or a sense of sorrow at the state of the world? If we aren’t sure of the answer, how can young people with their still-developing brains know how to avoid the emotional pitfalls? 

So since music and emotion are already intertwined, it only makes sense to use one when confronting the other. So any instruction in social and emotional learning should try to incorporate music. That can and must be done in a socially conscious way to maximize student impact as mentioned before. Yes, I have a pandemic playlist that has lifted my spirits and a community of encouraging friends that have bolstered me. That sounds like the beginning of some musical SEL (MSEL). But we need to go deeper.

I have to say that taking brief class breaks this past year for the class to engage in musical TikTok trends hasn’t succeeded in making me 🔥 (along with my attempting to use the phrase fire), but it has fostered meaningful connections between my students and myself. Those brief moments of goofiness while connecting and reflecting on our genuine emotional states did so much more for fostering learning throughout the rest of the day than any review would have. That’s because that connection is where all good teaching begins. You cannot be effective if you don’t know your students well. And giving the students choices in music even if it’s connected to an entirely separate academic activity (listening to a song while doing group work) demonstrates how you value the students. Challenge them to choose a song connected to their current feelings or the activity they’re engaged in. Beyond that have them create a song (more on that using Flocabulary below).

I believe everyone will soon come to realize that our arts educators are the secret weapon to the implementation of Social Emotional Learning in our schools.

– Dr. Maurice Eliase

Just as I said before, we also need to connect to a broad array of musical cultures as well, especially those that are meaningful to our students. And maybe most of the students love hip-hop and maybe others are a bit emo. Some may like pop music and others love Pinoy or Bachata from their native countries, but as I said before, MSEL that is not culturally responsive is empty. SO know your students well enough to tap into all of that.

 And ultimately we want our students to become creators. In Odessa, Texas, a town renowned for football and a marching band, students were struggling to persevere during the pandemic, and morning marching band practice was the only thing that kept some high school students attending class. The music is tied to the students’ social connections and their entire concept of the value of school. Music is connected to and remains a part of our cultural, spiritual, and social identities.

One of the best MSEL experiences my classes had even while we were remote was to create music mash-ups or original songs. Yes, I had a home full of professional instruments, but we had fun gathering materials and creating our own homemade instruments. And it was equitable because it didn’t take much. Some Pringles cans or a couple of spoons would work. I was even able to drop off materials for the students who were in shelters. And then we utilized Flocabulary’s Lyric Lab connected to content we were diving into to give background beats and help us create our rhymes. Two topics we often connected back to were the ones on building empathy and active listening as they were skills the students with autism often struggled with but were of greater import during the pandemic.  And I saw as they played and sang, the light on their faces of an experience that would be remembered beyond any lesson I taught that year. Music can be an escape and joy as well.

MSEL Resources

You don’t have to build a class symphony or anything though to engage in meaningful MSEL. Students can listen to a piece of music and interpret their feelings like in the “Turn Off the News” example lesson. There are a number of resources available. The Center for Arts Education and Social Emotional Learning (ArtsEdSEL) is a wonderful hub that walks students through the five SEL skills through artistic creation, performance, response, and connection. In addition, ArtsEdNow lets students and teachers engage in arts advocacy, an important part of MSEL since the arts are often the first safe place to allow for the strangeness and dissension that begins to flourish in some teenagers. Music and art are made to challenge the status quo.

children playing guitars

Moreso it was made even easier for my students through Flocabulary which offers all subject matter through hip-hop music. In addition, there is an entire life skills section that covers topics related to SEL, health and wellness, and social justice which gives you the power to combine those initiatives in the manner I previously described.  Beyond that the Lyric Lab provides a space that makes it easy for my students to begin to create their own songs connected to whatever topic we’re exploring and to do it inclusively with Immersive Reader and a number of other accessibility features built into the platform. Those are the kinds of tools that help my life a little bit easier as a teacher of students with disabilities.

So I hope that however you do it, you begin to engage in the type of meaningful SEL work that can have a major impact, especially on your struggling students. And I hope that however you incorporate the power of music, it begins their journey towards learning the skills necessary to create a soundtrack of success for the rest of their life

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.

– Bob Marley

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