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?


Monday Round-Up, March 18th

Welcome to the new week! Hopefully your St. Patrick's Day festivities don't have you feeling less than 100% this morning. Let's get to our favorite stories this week!


'Auti-sim' Game Simulates Life with Childhood Autism (Mashable)

From Mashable, a cool story about a group of programmers who participated in a health "hackathon," getting together to write software athat can lead a hand in the healthcare world.

One programmer, Taylan Kadayifcioglu, decided to make a program that simulates the experience of child with autism who is overstimulated by sound and light. The game let's users walk around a playground, and as they get closer to other children, the sound level raises to an uncomfortable volume, vision becomes pixelated, and faces are blurred.

Now the game is far from perfect. As anyone who has spent anytime in the autism community knows, autism is a spectrum, and no two persons with autism experience it in the same way. However, it does provide an idea of how a child with autism might experience a social environment that other's may find enjoyable.


'Inside Autism' Sensory Overload Simulation


The programmer behind "Auti-Sim" was inspired by this scene from "Inside Autism," which I was unfamiliar with. The movie is made by an adult with autism and shows neuro-typical people what it's like to have autism. In this clip, we get an idea of what sensory overload looks like during a trip to the store.


The Best Health Sites for Kids (USA Today)

USA Today offers up a collection of health sites aimed at children that helps them learn disease and staying healthy. A useful resource for parents too!


Using Music to...Lose Weight? (The Global and Mail)

Check out the bottom of the list on this one. Research shows that soft music can help reduce the emotions that lead to overeating. I've heard of music to pace exercise, but didn't realize research supports using it to pace eating as well. Very cool!


 One-Handed Violinist Helps People with Disabilities Make Music

Had to modify the headline here (C'mon people, person first language), but this is a pretty neat long-form article about Adrian Anantawan, a violinist who was born with one hand. I particularly like this quote:

"Accessibility is not an act of charity, it's one of lifting the ceiling of potential development so that all children can explore this world, but also possibly create new ones."


Any Dream Will Do Crew at the Woodruff Arts Center!

Check out our performing arts class for teens taking in the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra! We had a great time listening to the wonderful music and learned about the orchestra and concert etiquette on the way!


SER-AMTA Conference

Don't forget, the whole George Center crew will be heading up to Chattanooga for our regional music therapy conference at the end of this week! Both Jamie and Andrew will be presenting, we'll share highlights from their presentations next week!

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Music and Empathy

More Ryan Gosling "Hey Girl" Memes at the end of the post! I'm going to make you read it first...

It should be no surprise that love and music go hand in hand. The ratio for love songs to songs about ANYTHING other than love must be around 6000:1. Some of the most iconic love stories of all time had classic love songs that sold millions of copies ("The Bodyguard," "Titanic," etc.). From heart-wrenching break up anthems, to first dances at weddings, music has always been associated with love and the roller coaster of emotion that comes with it.

But did you know that music does far more than just allow for an avenue of expression for love? Music making can actually teach children how to be empathetic and increase their ability to recognize the emotional states of others, in general increasing their emotional intelligence. Researchers at Cambridge University conducted a fascinating study to measure this.

52 children were divided amongst three groups. One group participated in a weekly music group for one hour that encouraged musical interactions between group members. A second group participated in drama-based games with no music, and the last group did not participate in either group.

The children from the music group performed significantly better on post-tests than the other groups. The post-test included a questionnaire, as well as a test which measured the children's ability to remember the emotional states of actors in short videos. The researchers deemed that the music group helped children to develop "shared intentionality" and "mutual honesty," or understanding the intentions of their peers, which helped with an increased sense of empathy. As you can imagine, empathy for others is an important skill in developing healthy relationships with peers, friends, family, and loved ones.

This idea becomes particularly interesting when we examine the peer relationships of children with learning disabilities. Research shows that children with learning differences have a more difficult time forming friendships than their peers. The cause for this difficulty could be debated, but it would be reasonable to assume that greater empathy from students with and without learning disabilities may have a positive effect on how these two groups interact and learn from each other.

So you see, music is more than just telling someone we love them, it can actually help us develop the skills necessary to build healthy relationships.

Interested in starting a music group at your school? The George Center can design a weekly group for you that will build healthy relationship skills for your students! Let us tell you about it!