How to Add Social-Emotional Learning Lessons to Your Music Curriculum

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As we approach the coming school year, we can all agree we are still in unmapped territory. We may again have to take on the challenge of online lesson delivery, virtual ensembles, and the Bitmoji interactive classroom thing. Our students need us, and we will be there for them.

This school year, we as the amazing and resourceful educators we are will need to embrace the paradigm shift our students are facing. Our strategies will be found in our understanding of Trauma-Informed Education and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL).

I think we can all agree Social-Emotional Learning and Trauma-Informed Education are making their way into the teaching mainstream. There are a variety of great resources including Facebook groups, summer classes like the ones I taught at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and curriculum programs to enhance teachers’ ability to deliver social and emotional learning.

Today’s student comes to us with a variety of important and individual needs. Combining SEL strategies with the understanding of trauma-informed educational practices will allow us as educators to be the teacher they need and elevate their learning in our environment.

What is Trauma-Informed Education and SEL?

Even though these practices are becoming mainstream, many of us may not know these concepts. Let’s take a look at each:

Trauma-Informed Education

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found 61% of the adults surveyed reported an adverse childhood experience. These traumatic events have a profound impact on the brain and a child’s ability to learn and grow. Trauma-informed educators understand the role trauma plays in students and our role in intervention to provide a buffer from the trauma. Additional studies have shown it only requires one buffer to begin the healing of the traumatic experience.

How can we make our music teaching trauma informed? We start by fostering positive relationships with our students. Treating all our students with respect goes a long way. Even when we think we are doing this, there are blind spots in our actions. Ask yourself questions like these: “Do I have the same relationship with my last-chair flutist as I do with my lead jazz band trumpet player?”

Social-Emotional Learning

When we talk about social and emotional learning, almost everyone will mention the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). This organization leads the charge for SEL and has over 25 years of experience leading the framework for SEL delivery.

If you go to their website you will find the Five Core Competencies of SEL. These competencies are Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making.

CASEL states:

“Social and emotional learning (SEL) enhances students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges. Like many similar frameworks, CASEL’s integrated framework promotes intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive competence. There are five core competencies that can be taught in many ways across many settings. Many educators and researchers are also exploring how best to assess these competencies.”

On the website for the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) there are also resources to assist you in your understanding of SEL. Additionally, SEL Arts is an amazing resource to embrace as well.

Getting Started with Tactical Alignments

Making the shift to a more encompassing SEL classroom model just requires a tactical alignment to many of your current lesson models. As your school administrative teams begin to develop plans for SEL, we as arts teachers are already there. With the mindset shift to include SEL, we can make a major impact with minimal change.

Examples of tactical starting points:

Self-Assessment – Students can self-assess their scale knowledge for their clarinet.

Self-Management – Students can discuss how to achieve performance goals based on the time frame they have until a performance date and create a plan to meet those goals.

Social Awareness – Students studying Ludwig van Beethoven can discuss how his deafness impacted his social standing. Then they can respond to a writing prompt to relate a time they felt similar to Beethoven.

Relationship Skills – High school students in choir can create an action plan to build stronger relationships with the middle school choir for a greater feeling of connection.

Responsible Decision Making – Advanced jazz band students have to decide which selection they choose to improvise based on their scale knowledge.

Ponder these starting points and let them function as lesson starters for your new SEL-focused unit plan or competency-aligned lessons. If you wish to embrace more detailed breakdowns of lesson ideas, the book Music Education and Social Emotional Learning: The Heart of Teaching Music by Scott Edgar provides thorough lesson ideas that can be employed in your classroom.

As Edgar says, “Music educators are in a prime position to help students become socially and emotionally competent while at the same time develop excellent musicianship.” As we add SEL concepts to our lessons, we can do so without losing the essence of our music education goals.

Making the decision to elevate your SEL game will lead you and your students toward a more inclusive and accepting classroom environment for everyone. Even though the idea may seem challenging, remember your first day of teaching and how difficult it felt to walk into the classroom – those feelings provided you with great feedback and helped you to become the amazing music educator you are today.

When you search for the natural alignments you already have in your current curriculum and make small tactical shifts in your lessons, the social and emotional connections will shine through. When you think you have it figured out, you can make small, subtle shifts to continue growing. Whether you choose a simple modification or make a complete lesson shift, remember your actions are making music lessons even better for every child. Every positive action you take will be an intervention in the life of a child. Your move to a more encompassing SEL model can be the difference in a child’s world.


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David Knott
Professional Percussionist, Leadership Advocate, and Conductor, David Knott currently serves as a member of the instrumental music faculty of the Milton Hershey School where he coordinates and directs all Middle Division Band activities. In addition to Milton Hershey, Mr. Knott is the founder of the Central Pennsylvania Wind Conductors Society and has served as a member of the music faculty of Elizabethtown College and Messiah College where he directed the percussion studio and taught courses on Percussion for Music Education and Percussion for Music Therapy. Mr. Knott earned his Bachelor of Science in Music Education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Music Degree in Percussion Performance from Michigan State University.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Feel free to reach out if you wish to discuss this topic in more detail or collaborate on SEL or any band / music projects.

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