Teaching Social and Emotional Learning Through Music

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is the buzzword in education now. But how do music teachers implement SEL in a remote or hybrid learning environment? And how can parents support SEL at home?

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Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has become a hot topic in education right now. And with anxiety and stress levels at an all time high due to the Pandemic and distance learning, it is perhaps more important than ever, both in the classroom and at home.

Music provides fertile grounds for SEL, as it is inherently social AND emotional. It makes us feel something, and it generally requires some form of collaboration. As such, skills like adaptability, emotional recognition, self-regulation, empathy, creativity, perseverance, and confidence can be taught in a very organic way. But an essential element that is often missing is the correct labeling of those skills in the moment. Without such recognition, we risk losing the SEL in the depth of our subconscious.

So, how do teachers implement SEL in a remote or hybrid learning environment? And how can parents support it at home? This is a topic near and dear to my heart so I decided to ask my expert friend Dr. Scott Edgar to share his views.

Edgar is an Associate Professor of Music, Music Education Chair, and Director of Bands at Lake Forest College. He is the author of Music Education and Social Emotional Learning: The Heart of Teaching Music and is an internationally sought-after clinician on the topic. His new children’s book, The ABCs of My Feelings and Music, which was written in collaboration with his wife Stephanie Edgar, is built on the principles of SEL, aiming to broaden one’s emotional vocabulary and link that to the understanding of music. 

Dr. Scott Edgar

What Is SEL? 

SEL is a skill-based approach by which students acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand (and manage) emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

But Edgar also thinks it’s important to understand that SEL is not counseling. “It should be implemented in whole class instruction and embedded into our artistic processes. When done well, SEL looks like phenomenal music teaching and learning. For this to be optimal, SEL needs to connect to all levels of community.” 

Why Is SEL Important? 

Teaching SEL is important because it’s a fundamental building block for students to have a healthy relationship with themselves and others.

“The pandemic, racism, inequity, and a lack of understanding and empathy has necessitated these skills now more than ever. Parents and teachers need to find opportunities to amplify voices and give choices. Being told what to do in these times will not develop the necessary capacity to respond to these challenges in productive ways. We need to co-learn a path with our students and children so that we can build identity, resilience, and initiate action,” Edgar explains. 

Are We Teaching SEL Effectively?

SEL is most effective when it is built into the fabric of the school. Some might argue it should be embedded into the layer above that, into the District at large. If funding was tied to SEL outcomes for example, imagine the changes we would see? Then perhaps teachers would be prepared to habitually incorporate it into their curriculum and instruction right from the start. 

For SEL to be effective in teaching and provide students the life skills needed to navigate their world after they leave our classroom, it must be embedded into our curriculum. We must make SEL intentional and meaningful–it does not just happen,” says Edgar. 

For music educators, this means teaching lessons where students have the opportunity to form connections and work together, utilize culturally relevant music that is of personal interest to them, and reflect upon the experience. The reflection process is just as important as the product and can help unpack creativity, self-awareness, self-assessment, and students setting their own goals and provide an opportunity to label the skills being taught. 

Supporting SEL At Home

There are many ways parents can foster emotional intelligence and promote SEL at home. 

“Parents can be empathetic to the challenges and Zoom fatigue. It’s tough for kids, much harder (for most) than in-person learning. Parents can help their children understand their motivations, challenges, and possibly strengths they bring to remote learning. When students start to hit their breaking point, opening up communication lines with teachers is important. Encourage students to advocate through respectful communication about how things are going,” Edgar points out.

I asked Dr. Edgar to recommend a music-based SEL activity for parents to try at home.

“One activity I love is the musical family tree. Have students/children interview all members of their family simply asking them about their favorite musical piece or artist. Then, create a family tree based on this information. This will facilitate much-needed interaction and learning about the musical identity of their family,” he says.

Another simple activity that we like at WURRLYedu is simply to start talking about what emotions are reflected in music – listen to music together and start a conversation about how it makes you feel.

SEL is about teaching skills that can be utilized for the rest of one’s life, that improve decision making, health and well-being, and relationships. As we are feeling more anxious and overwhelmed than ever, SEL is critical for students, educators, and parents. 

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