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?


Understanding Music Therapy and IDEA

When speaking with the parents of a child with special needs about music therapy, we frequently hear "Wow, I wish he had this at his school!"

To which I excitedly say "You're in luck! Music therapy is considered a related service under IDEA!"

IDEA, known officially as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, was sweeping legislation that changed the way we treat individuals with disabilities in this nation. Signed into law in 1990, it really cannot be overstated just how big the effect of this legislation was. It radically changed the world of special education.

It set up the Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, a central part of education for children with learning differences, as well as the "related services."  But what exactly does that mean?  A related service is a service that falls into certain categories and guidelines, that when deemed necessary for a child's education, must be put into the IEP, with costs covered by the school.  So the fact that music therapy qualifies as a related service is a big deal.

But the key component of all of this, and what all too often is used as a barrier to services, is the "deemed necessary" part. It's all too easy for the IEP team to tell a parent that a service isn't really needed, and it's up to the parent to fight for all the services they believe their child needs. When you consider music therapy in this equation, it becomes even more difficult, as many educators and administrators have NO IDEA what music therapy is. It's alright, we're working to change that.

So how do you go about getting music therapy added to an IEP? Natalie Mullis, owner of Key Changes Music Therapy Services in Columbia, South Carolina, is writing an EXCELLENT series on her blog right now, breaking down the steps of getting music therapy on your child's IEP. Natalie is a fantastic music therapist, and has done a great job of breaking this down. Head over to her blog, read through it, and leave her some comments!

It just so happens that our own Laurie Peebles, who also hails from the Palmetto State, is over in South Carolina (or, Sakerlina, as I am fond of saying to her) right now, advocating for a music therapy licensure bill similar to what Georgia passed last year at her state capital! So please, send both her and the wonderful Natalie Mullis good vibes! Their work will make getting music therapy services on an IEP even easier, along with a whole host of other benefits.

Interested in music therapy services for your school, or getting a music therapy added to your child's IEP? We would love to help! Click the purple button below to get started, no obligation, just a free chat!


Image credit: Nioxxe (