“There may be no more powerful method of learning than through music, and no more important lessons for children than those that focus on character and social and emotional skills,” according to clinical psychologist and author Don MacMannis, Ph.D.
MacMannis is the clinical director of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara and a music director and songwriter for the PBS hit animated children’s series “Jay Jay the Jet Plane.”
He’s developed over 40 songs in a variety of genres that help kids with everything from being assertive to managing their feelings to respecting others to understanding responsibility. Both kids and adults provide the vocals, and lyrics are packed with positive, empowering messages.
For instance, the song “Go Away Bad Thoughts,” written in a country-western style, teaches kids that they don’t have to believe their negative thoughts. Here’s an excerpt:
So I walked outside to see if I could hide from my bad thoughts,
Then everything I tried, including when I cried, left me bad thoughts.
‘Cause all I was thinking was “poor poor me.”
Everything’s bad ’til there’s more for me.
He got all the luck, and here I am stuck with my bad thoughts, bad thoughts.
No need to get riled up instead of havin’ fun, and no need to dial up 911.
If you want to get those thoughts to end, yell out twice then yell it again…
Go away bad thoughts, go away bad thoughts,
Go away bad thoughts, go away.
Go away bad thoughts, get outta my head.
I want to have a good day instead.
So scram, get out, be gone, vamoose.
I’m takin’ over and I’m cookin’ your goose!
Research has found that these songs and accompanying activities have a positive effect on kids’ school performance, social relationships and conflict resolution.
Specifically, the study involved 320 first- and second-grade students from 16 classrooms in Santa Barbara and Goleta, Calif. schools. Kids were given a CD, and then received nine lessons using songs and activities from trained college students. The themes were:
- Friendship and Reaching Out
- Respect and Caring
- Celebrating Differences
- Expressing and Managing Feelings
- Communication and Conflict
- Positive Thinking
- Dealing with Fears
- Best Effort
- Manners and Review
To test the intervention’s efficacy, teachers completed the Behavioral and Emotional Screening System (BESS) for each child four times in one year along with other assessments about the classroom. The college students who taught the lessons, the school’s principal and the children’s parents all provided feedback as well.
Both first and second graders showed a variety of improvements, including “approaching peers, using effective tools with teasing and bullying, understanding and using the Golden Rule, resolving conflicts by talking out feelings, staying on task [and] having a positive attitude,” according to MacMannis. Second graders also “showed improvements with concentration and self-control.”
Music appears to light up various regions of the brain related to language, hearing and motor control, MacMannis said. When listening to songs we tend to compare new images with past memories, which involves the association cortex, he said. “And elements of musical surprise activate the cerebellum.”
Music also is highly pleasurable and sustains our attention. This is especially interesting because music has no biological value and shares no similarities with other pleasurable stimuli.
As authors of this study point out, “…there are no direct functional similarities between music and other pleasure-producing stimuli: it has no clearly established biological value (cf., food, love, and sex), no tangible basis (cf., pharmacological drugs and monetary rewards), and no known addictive properties (cf., gambling and nicotine). Despite this, music is consistently ranked amongst the top ten things that individuals find highly pleasurable, and it plays a ubiquitous and important role in most people’s lives.”
“Pleasurable experiences with songs involve brain circuitry associated with pleasure, reward, and emotion, such as the ventral striatum, midbrain, amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventral medial prefrontal cortex,” MacMannis said.
Music is a great way to engage your kids in powerful lessons, such as teaching them social and emotional skills. As a recent meta-analysis found, these skills help boost academic performance; improve problem-solving and decision-making; and reduce conduct problems and emotional distress.
Of course, these skills are pretty important for adulthood, too.
This excerpt features additional information on how music enhances learning.
Learn more about MacMannis’s powerful music for kids at his website. Sign up, and receive free learning activities and a free song every month. Also, check out his parenting blog on Psych Central, which is co-written with his wife Debra Manchester MacMannis, MSW, a psychotherapist and co-author of their book How’s Your Family Really Doing?