Research on Songs and Activities to Boost Children’s Social and Emotional Skills

(reprinted from California Psychologist, May-June 2011.

Children today are experiencing levels of stress like never before, and what they see and hear is forming new connections in their rapidly growing brains. Music has been shown to be an effective, almost magical medium for teaching skills (Sacks, 2007). Most of us have experienced its long-lasting effects for learning and retention. Isn’t it how you still remember your ABCs? We can remember the words and meanings of songs we haven’t heard for years, perhaps music lights up a such a variety of brain centers, including language, hearing, and rhythmic motor control (Pinker 1997.)

The February 2011 journal of Child Development had an article entitled “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions.” The authors provide a meta-analysis of 213 school-based, social and emotional learning (SEL) programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students. Compared to controls, SEL participants showed signi?cant improvements in social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behavior. Not surprisingly, there was also an average 11-percentile-point gain in academic achievement.

Similar to these results, a research project in the Santa Barbara and Goleta, California schools studied the effects of songs and related activities on children’s social and emotional skills. Using songs from Ready to Rock Kids, 320 first and second grade children from sixteen classrooms were involved. The children each received a CD, and in a subsequent condition, college students were trained to provide forty-minute lessons using songs and activities on nine Friday afternoons.

The lessons included themes of:


1. Friendship and Reaching Out

2. Respect and Caring

3. Celebrating Differences

4. Expressing and Managing Feelings

5. Communication and Conflict

6. Positive Thinking

7. Dealing with Fears

8. Best Effort

9. Manners and Review

In order to study the impact of the interventions, teachers filled out standardized BESS (Behavioral and Emotional Screening System) tests on each child four times over the course of the year. They also provided repeated assessments of their classroom in general. The school principals, college students, and parents of the children also provided feedback about their respective experiences with the program.

Significant changes occurred in the children, both under the conditions of having the CD alone, and also by participating in the school lessons. Some of the most significant improvements for both first and second graders were in “encouraging others to do their best,” as well as following rules in the group. There were also positive changes with confidence.

First graders showed more dramatic changes than second graders, learning skills in approaching peers, using effective tools with teasing and bullying, understanding and using the Golden Rule, resolving conflicts by talking out feelings, staying on task, having a positive attitude, and applying concepts learned from Ready to Rock Kids to every day situations. Parents were enthusiastic, reporting that the project prompted meaningful and helpful family discussions. The college student “teachers” also made significant gains in their own social and emotional skills.

Brain researchers note that music activates neural systems of reward and emotion similar to those stimulated by food, sex and drugs (Blood and Zatorre, 2001). Music “tickles” the brain in a highly pleasurable way. It releases endorphins that provide feelings of happiness and energy. A fun way to “make the medicine go down,” kids welcome tools to better handle their feelings, relationships, and practice positive thinking. Anthropologists point out that all cultures embrace music in a variety of forms, and it’s the only thing that, worldwide, people spend more on than prescription drugs!

Despite mounting evidence that supports the benefits of social and emotional learning, schools are still prone to focus on academics through testing and drill. The studies cited here demonstrate that even when time is taken away from the traditional “Three Rs” to focus on SEL, academic scores improve. Perhaps a fitting analogy is that of computer memory. When children are preoccupied, they have far less “memory” or attention available for cognitive inputs. Imagine a kid who has just been teased on the playground and is then expected to pay attention to the teacher putting arithmetic problems up on the blackboard. Little brains are often too easily “hijacked” by their amygdalas to pay attention. No surprise, it seems that happy kids learn better!


Blood, A. and Zatorre, R. (2001) Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 98, 11818-11823.

Durlak, J., Weissberg, R., Dymnicki, A., Taylor, R., Schellinger, K. (2011) The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning:

A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions, Child Development, 82, 405-432.

Pinker, Steven (1997) How the Mind Works, New York: Norton.

Sacks, Oliver. (2007) Musicophilia, New York: Alfred A Knopf.



Don R. MacMannis, Ph.D. has been a psychologist and Co-director of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara for the past thirty years. He is the co-author of How’s Your Family Really Doing?: 10 Keys to a Happy Loving Family. Also a PBS songwriter, he has written and produced Ready to Rock Kids, a series of award-winning CDs, single-song downloads, and activity books for social and emotional learning. Emails may be sent to and his website is