Music Education and Socio-Emotional Development

Jamie Rives, Denton, TX
Jamie Rives, Denton, TX

Research consistently shows that participation in music education benefits the socio-emotional development of all children, with or without disabilities, “at risk” or not, all ethnicities, early childhood or any age through high school (Menzer, 2015). Menzer (2015) defines social skills as helping, sharing, caring, empathy, and the capacity for other kinds of healthy interpersonal behavior and describes emotional skills as mood control and positive changes in affect and expression. “Strong social skills are vital for successful functioning in life. Social skills can affect academic success, peer relationships, family relationships, employment, and extra-curricular and leisure activities” (Gooding, 2009).

Students with deficiencies in socio-emotional behaviors exhibit higher dropout rates, lack of postsecondary education, difficulty with employment, substance abuse and unstable relationships (Lane, Givner, & Pierson, 2004). Therefore, “Children need opportunities to learn social skills, practice those skills, and receive corrective feedback about their performance of those skills (Gooding, 2009. p. 35). Our music classrooms naturally lend themselves as social environments where these skills can be practiced and developed, potentially eliminating some of the deficiencies and their outcomes.

Many parents have read the research that musical play influences their infants’ and toddlers’ social development and so they regularly place their children in active music classes to encourage that growth (Karanam, 2015), but as soon as their children age out of those programs, the responsibility passes to us. As music educators, how do we encourage that growth? Do we capture teaching moments during regular class settings or do we prepare our lessons more intentionally to address socio-emotional skills?

Many educators use an opportunistic approach to social skills, because much of the interaction in our classrooms, especially elementary, naturally lends itself to social-emotional skills as a prerequisite. In a typical music lesson, teaching any content of your choice, we often ask children to choose a friend, take turns, share an instrument, move together, etc. (Jacobi, 2012). These activities require some level of social maturity when participating. Students frequently respond with, “I don’t want to hold her hand,” “He’s gross!” “You’re not doing it right!” and “He’s pulling my arm!” These exclamations lend themselves to simple teaching moments on which most teachers capitalize, but we must prepare to do so. We should stop and adjust to make the most of the opportunity by redirecting the negative behavior, providing praise and reinforcement to those behaving socially and emotionally acceptable and then continuing the lesson. As a result, our classroom is positively affected. Teaching moment captured! Other opportunistic examples include modeling skills for your students so they may imitate and finding a child who demonstrates a positive socio-emotional skill and bringing it to the attention of the class in a non-threatening way (Jacobi, 2012).

Many educators use a more intentional approach to teaching socio-emotional skills in their classrooms. This often initially takes more time, but results in a strong, longer lasting impact. Some examples of prosocial behaviors might include class incentive systems, selecting songs with lyrics that convey positive messages and noting the skills that a particular class struggles with and weaving them into your lessons (Jacobi, 2012). Other ideas include using posters related to social learning as classroom décor, arranging instrumental accompaniments to songs so that specific children are assigned to parts that will guarantee success, taking time to point out every single positive achievement in classes with low socio-emotional skills, making the daily focus about socio-emotional learning when classes seem unsettled by selecting easily achievable activities, and integrating music into other areas of the school to teach positive habits (Heyworth, 2013). Other approaches that pertain to performing groups and/or classes of older children might include the use of “icebreaker” games that promote sharing information about themselves, team building activities, social functions, “big-brother” and “big-sister” activities, and peer teaching (Hourigan, 2009).

So, are you thinking “Do I have to teach socio-emotional skills in my classroom?” Research dictates that “Yes, you have to teach these skills in your classroom.” It’s not optional. By default, our content dictates that we do. The question is “How will you teach socio-emotional skills in your classroom?” Will you be opportunistic, intentional, or maybe a little of both? It doesn’t matter which you choose, if you make the daily choice to do your best for your students. But, first and foremost, remember that they are watching you and the way you model appropriate socio-emotional skills.

As an elementary music teacher, I choose to be opportunistic when it comes to teaching socio-emotional skills. By default, as stated by Jacobi (2012), much of the interaction in the elementary classroom, naturally lends itself to social-emotional skills as a prerequisite. In a typical music lesson, whether the musical focus be half note or la, I often ask the children to choose a friend, take turns, share an instrument, move together, etc. My students often respond with, “I don’t want to hold her hand,” “He’s gross!” “You’re not doing it right!” and “He’s pulling my arm!” Each class, each day, I anticipate these exclamations and have “stock” responses at the ready such as, “Sometimes I have to be partners in a meeting with another teacher who is not my best friend. I always use kind words and smile at them. Rude words and ugly faces would hurt their feelings,” “If you aren’t sure how to be a great partner, watch Johnny. He knows exactly how to hold Sara’s hand gently so she stays safe in our classroom,” “Oh, my! Billy, did you hear what I just heard? I heard a friend bossing another friend with a rude voice. You would never talk to someone like that, would you?”

Statements such as these seem a bit ridiculous and theatrical, but they allow me to avoid singling out specific children, do not interrupt the flow of the lesson, and allow me to reinforce the desired positive behaviors in a short amount of time. These teaching moments are especially important and shouldn’t be missed, even when I’m tired or having a bad day. Children must be addressed by a trusted adult who cares about them and loves them. After being with most of my students for up to six years, I have become that constant. I am that person.

I redirect the negative behavior with short prompts such as “Please use kind words,” “Please try asking Stephanie again with respect,” “Make sure you are treating your partner how you would like to be treated,” and provide praise and reinforcement to those behaving socially and emotionally acceptable with quick comments like “Joe is speaking so nicely to Sally,” and then continue the lesson. I also attempt to model acceptable socio-emotional skills for my students so they may imitate me, even though it is sometimes a challenge. I am often frustrated when redirecting a child five times for the same infraction, but I try to remind myself to use it as a time to show grace, which frequently needs to be shown to me. Besides, I’m patient when the student makes multiple mistakes while learning a new musical skill, so why shouldn’t I be just as patient when learning socio-emotional skills?

This is the true reason why I choose to be an opportunistic teacher when it comes to these skills in my classroom. As a result, our classroom is positively affected. I have tried to be more intentional and plan specific lessons for targeted socio-emotional skills and these lessons have been successful, but I find that they are not the best for my classroom. I become so focused on the specific socio-emotional skill of the lesson that I unintentionally ignore other undesired musical behaviors. I need a continuous accountability system and always be ready for those teachable moments that encourage me to be a model for the children. Our behavior towards each other should be at the forefront of who we are as people and must be emphasized to our students. They know that no matter what, we will always stop and remember to be kind, supportive and caring towards each other.


Gooding, L. (2009). Enhancing Social Competence in the Music Classroom. General Music Today, 23(1), 35-38.

Heyworth, J. N. (2013). Developing Social Skills through Music: The Impact of General Classroom Music in an Australian Lower Socio-Economic Area Primary School. Childhood Education, 89(4), 234-242.

Hourigan, R. M. (2009). The Invisible Student: Understanding Social Identity Construction within Performing Ensembles. Music Educators Journal, 95(4), 34-38.

Jacobi, B. S. (2012). Opportunities for Socioemotional Learning in Music Classrooms. Music Educators Journal, 99(2), 68-74.

Karanam, K. (2015, November 9). Music Enhances Social Skills. Retrieved from

Lane, K. L., Givner, C. C., & Pierson, M. R. (2004). Teacher Expectations of Student Behavior: Social Skills Necessary for Success in Elementary School Classrooms. Journal of Special Education, 38, 104-110.

Menzer, M. (2015). The Arts in Early Childhood: Social and Emotional Benefits of Arts Participation: A Literature Review and Gap-Analysis (2000-2015) (United States, National Endowment for the Arts, Office of Research and Analysis). Washington, DC: NEA Office of Research and Analysis. Retrieved from

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