SONGS FOR LIFE LESSONS IN EARLY CHILDHOOD

By Tom Lottman, Research Director, Growing Sound

We pack our luggage for life’s journey in the early years. We learn the language with which we will communicate with family, friends, coworkers and adversaries. We learn to read so that we can read to learn; achieving the knowledge and skills with which we will earn a living, give back to our community and raise the next generation. And very importantly, we become aware of ourselves and our feelings. We learn to control both our inward experiences and our outward expressions. These are the tools which we’ll use to make peace with ourselves, make ties to our friends, make love with our spouse and make the future with our children. If we don’t pack these social and emotional (SE) skills into the luggage of early childhood, the journey to adulthood becomes challenging.

How do we learn these social and emotional skills? It happens through both experiences that emerge naturally within loving families, and the experiences that are orchestrated intentionally in early childhood education.  Unfortunately, for the most part, early childhood education has lacked the strategies for effectively teaching these critical skills. Traditionally the social and emotional emphasis in early childhood classrooms was to find and fix the children who were out of control or who were at risk. The emerging research on social and emotional development and its importance to early childhood education had not yet impacted the way teachers nurtured those strengths in the children in their care. Now as the importance of social and emotional learning has become not only widespread, but widely mandated, the field seeks new paradigms to effectively nurture these skills.

We suggest music as a unique teaching strategy for SE learning. Early childhood educators and parents are well aware of songs as powerful teaching tools with young children. It seems safe to assert that almost no child has learned the alphabet without the accompaniment of the ABCs lyrical melody. And the use of songs in early education has evolved as a staple of every language and cognitive skill curriculum. However, early education’s embrace of SE learning has not seen a comparable emergence of song as a SE teaching tool.

Music and lyrics represent a very effective means of SE learning in early childhood. Very specifically, four types of songs can be key to instilling SE knowledge and skills.  These are: 1) “Self-talk” Songs; 2) Experiential Songs; 3) Story Songs; and 4) Concept Songs.

Winsler and colleagues (2009) provide a comprehensive review of research on the importance of self talk or private speech in children’s development.  Early in life children use and internalize self talk that becomes the basis of strongly held beliefs about themselves, other people and the world in general.  This self talk reinforces their perception of their own abilities or limitations, other people’s benevolence or malice, and

the overall safety or threat of the world in which they live.  We maintain that the early childhood educator is in a potent position to influence this self talk toward the positive.

Our “self talk” songs are designed to be “over-learned” so that the child so internalizes their message that it is automatically invoked in the face of a challenging task or a disappointment.  For example, the song, I Can Do It, repeats this phrase often with the stipulation, “I put my heart and my mind to it.” We have often seen children who have learned this song sing the words softly to themselves when they encounter a difficult problem.

This internalized self talk becomes the basis for a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006).  With a growth mindset, the child has truly internalized an association of effort with eventual success.  She believes that her knowledge and intelligence grows with effort and perseverance.  The child with a fixed mindset on the other hand believes that intelligence is fixed and effort is associated with failure.  He avoids challenging tasks and gives up when a problem requires effort.  He becomes more concerned with how he “looks” to others rather than how successfully he masters a skill.  It is easy to see how the internalization of mastery self talk becomes an essential component of school and life success.

Another type of song that is effective in teaching SE skills is the experiential song.  This type of song allows children to experience and practice the very skill we want them to acquire.  For example, there is a critical skill developed in early childhood called effortful control or inhibitory control.  It is the ability that when a child is “primed” to do a certain behavior, he is able to stop on cue and chose a sub-dominant behavior.  This skill is not present in children with problems of impulse control.    The song, Self Control, begins in a brisk upbeat tempo with the words, “I go fast, fast, fast.  Fast, fast, fast is the way I go; and then I stop!  Put it on hold, I got self control.”  Then the music slows to a crawl.   The song gives children an intensely stimulating behavior followed by the requirement to inhibit that behavior.  Similarly, games like, Red Light, Green Light and Simon Says require the ability to effortfully exert control in inhibiting a primed behavior.  The importance of effortful control to learning and school success has been well documented (Blair et al., 2007).

The third type of song are Story Songs.  These are songs designed for children to listen to in order to help them experience the circumstances and emotional reactions of others, the beginning of empathy.  For example, the song, Be Careful, tells the story of Chris, a little girl being bumped and hassled by other children.  She describes the situation and her reaction and asks the others to be respectful of her space.  The song shows children how to see the perspective of another child, to understand feelings and reactions that may be different from their own, and to comply with requests from others to modulate their behavior.  These are complex social skills essential to adapting within a cooperative community.

Finally, there are Concept Songs.  Concept songs directly teach key ideas that may contradict existing attitudes or beliefs. For example, the song Sometimes It Takes a  Few Mistakes teaches children how making mistakes can actually help us learn.

While there is a tendency to think of, and perhaps dismiss, children’s songs as cute diversions; we hope that this description of self-talk, experiential, story and concept songs demonstrates their versatility in teaching SE concepts and skills to young children.  While we often become preoccupied with the “emotional baggage” from early childhood that we drag through life, we fail to acknowledge the early years as a time when critical SE capacities are packed in life’s luggage to help us adapt along the way.  Songs taught and enjoyed in the context of a loving relationship with a parent or teacher are a means of giving a child the SE proficiency for school and life success. Let’s sing for their future.

References

Blair, C., Knipe, H., Cummings, E., Baker, D., Gamson, D., Eslinger, P., et al. (2007).  A developmental neuroscience approach to the study of school readiness. In R. Pianta, M. Cox, & K. Snow (Eds.), School readiness and the transition to kindergarten in the era of accountability. Baltimore:Brooks.

Dweck, C. (2006).  Mindset: The new psychology of success. N.Y.:Random House.

Winsler, A., Fernyhough, C., & Montero, I. (2009). Private speech, executive functioning, and the development of verbal self-regulation. NY: Cambridge University Press.

About Growing Sound

Growing Sound develops research based children’s music that promotes social and emotional development.  While many products focus on managing children’s problem behaviors, Growing Sound is a proactive, strength-based approach to helping children discover the goodness in their lives and in themselves.  Growing Sounds’ creative productions are led by David Kisor, an award-winning singer, songwriter, composer, performer and teacher.  The music of Growing Sound can be purchased by visiting www.growing-sound.com.

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