How to Use Music to Teach Appropriate Classroom Behavior

Many times, bright students are held back academically simply because of their inability to function within the structures of the classroom. These students may lag academically, yet this is not due to any kind of intellectual impairment, but rather because their behavior makes it difficult for them to keep up with the typical classroom.

This can take many froms, but something we often see is a student who experiences a disconnect between his or her actions and the subsequent consequences of these actions. The student simply does not understand that their action caused the punishment.

When this happens, we see punishments (loss of rewards, calling home, time-out, etc.) lose their effectiveness. When the student doesn't understand why he's being punished, it's unlikely that the punishment will continue to serve as a deterrent to undesired behaviors. Worse than that, as the student continues to be punished over and over again with no understanding of the cause, it's not uncommon to see a kind of "learned helplessness" develop. "I keep getting punished, but I don't know why. I guess there's nothing I can do about it."

This is where the gap between intention and function rears it's ugly head. The punishment was meant to deter students from engaging in behavior that disrupts the function of the classroom. Instead, it's simply functioning as a source of anxiety for the student that can't connect action to consequence.

As a result, we're left with a student who feels defeated, and a teacher at her wit's end, struggling to get her classroom to run smoothly for the benefit of all students.

Burn-out ensues.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

What can music therapy do to help classrooms run more effectively?

As music therapists, we work to address non-music goals using music based activities. In the above described case, we need to address the disconnect between action and consequence for this student. At the same time, we want to address the learned helplessness that can often accompany this situation.

Song writing can be a very effective tool in cases such as this. In the past, I worked with a client whose teacher utilized a color-coded behavior chart for her classroom. Students started out on green, if they had a fantastic day they could move up to blue. If they misbehaved, they would be moved down to yellow, or in severe cases down to red. For this client, moving down to yellow or red was something that she did not enjoy. It upset her. Yet she struggled to finish her days on blue or green. When asked what caused her to finish a day on yellow or red, she would often not recall what exactly she did that caused the punishment. Disconnect.

So in order to increase the client's understanding between action and consequence, we wrote a song about it. More specifically, we wrote a verse for each color on the behavior chart, with each line stating 1 or 2 actions that will result in a "blue day," "green day," "yellow day," or "red day."

We used one of my favorite song writing techniques, the piggyback song, to facilitate the process. I choose the song "Don't Worry, Be Happy!" by Bobby McFerrin.


I chose this song for 3 reasons:

  1. It features a very simple and easy-to-write A-B rhyming structure ("In every life we have some trouble, when you worry you make it double")
  2. The "Don't Worry, be happy!" refrain helps us address the anxiety stemming from the constant, confusing punishment (in this case, we changed the lyrics for the yellow and red verse to say "BUT don't worry, be happy!" and sang "So don't worry, be happy!" on the blue and green verses.)
  3. Bobby McFerrin is the coolest. Seriously, if you haven't seen the presentation he gave at the World Science Festival, go watch it now. It's 3 minutes long. I'll wait.

Our new lyrics shaped the song into this:

"When I'm kind and play nice too, then I will end up on blue!"

"Follow the rules and don't be mean, and you will end up on green!"

"If you throw JELL-O at a fellow, then you will end up on yellow!"

"Talk back to what a teacher said, you will end up on red!"

With each line featuring "Don't worry, be happy" after. We then recorded the song, and sang it every session to help engrain the lyrics. This allowed the client to reference the song during the week to remind themselves what they needed to do to accomplish their goal of a blue or green day.

In addition, it served as a reminder that slipping up and making a mistake was not a sign of one's lack of self worth, but rather a minor bump in the road.

So don't worry, be happy!

Interested in learning more about managing challenging classroom behaviors in the classroom with music therapy? Why not talk with one of our music therapists?