Music and Social Emotional Learning:

A Dynamic Duo

by Chet-Yeng Loong

January 2024



Hawaiʻi is one of only seven majority minority states in the country. More than any other state, Hawaiʻi stands out when it comes to its racial and ethnic diversity, because it never had a white majority (Goo, 2015). We, as teachers, are in a position to preserve these unique yet diverse identities by presenting music materials using a culturally responsive learning process and instilling the ho’ihi value—respecting cultural differences—in our keiki. Through the skillful use in our classrooms of a dynamic duo—music and Social Emotional Learning (SEL)—we can help our children self-regulate, recognize their identities and potential, make wise decisions, be responsible to their communities, cultivate a well-being mentality, and exhibit the Aloha spirit and a vigorous sense of Hawaiʻi.

The following details a project for teachers to incorporate SEL into the music classroom. It is suitable for all elementary/middle/intermediate school students, regardless of previous music experience, including students who completed general music in elementary school and students new to music at the intermediate level. Under the National Core Standards, the latter will be categorized under the intermediate NOVICE level. The project units are NOT actual lesson plans. Teachers are invited to sequence the activities creatively and to supplement them with other activities appropriate to the level of their students.

The project consists of a music component and an SEL component: The music component covers elements such as harmony, texture, form, dynamics, tone colors, and styles. The contents page lists the concepts in the sequence they are presented. The sections detail materials used to teach each concept. Materials include Asian Pacific pieces such as Samoan, Hawaiian, and Korean; various styles such as folk, pop, jazz, protest, and classical music; and tone colors of classical instruments.

The SEL component follows the CASEL “framework wheel” that includes self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (Casel, 2023). Teachers may use music activities to help students express their emotional feelings with their peers, which is especially helpful during challenging times.

The suggested activities are music-based; we use SEL as an approach to be integrated into the music lessons rather than as a methodology. Also, we enhance the SEL component by relating the HĀ: BREATH outcomes to SEL’s five competencies. Connecting both standards to music teaching creates a powerful tool for teachers to use to explore in-depth how students relate music to their emotions.

What Is Social Emotional Learning?
Social Emotional Learning became a popular topic of discussion during the COVID-19 pandemic, when children were forced to take classes online. After children spent weeks and months staring at screens and not interacting personally with peers, they faced challenges with expressing their feelings, and their ability to work and empathize with others suffered. They and their parents experienced stress and anxiety, and some families faced the additional struggles of isolation, loss of family members, and loss of financial security.

Social Emotional Learning is closely related to Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Daniel Goleman (2012) defined EQ as a person knowing what they and those around them are feeling and handling those feelings in an appropriate manner. The fundamentals of EQ are self-awareness, motivation, impulse control, and management of emotions. Social Emotional Learning is the ability to manage learning through student self-regulation and appropriate interaction with peers. The SEL concepts can be defined by five strategies that detail how educators can guide students to:   (1) know themselves and identify their potential (self-awareness); (2) self-regulate, be open to constructive critics and suggestions, be resilient (self-management); (3) be aware of their relationships among friends, including people who are different from them (social awareness); (4) construct healthy relationships (relationship skills); and (5) make wise decisions within themselves and with people around them (responsible decision-making) (CASEL, n.d.).

1.  Self-Awareness
Gardner (1983) defined intrapersonal intelligence as the ability to look into ourselves to determine how others see us, and to be particularly aware of our emotions, fears, and desires. According to Goleman (1995), self-awareness helps us know what we feel. It is the gut sense we use to make decisions. This skill enables children to discover themselves, identify their potential, and recognize their strengths and weaknesses.


To create self-awareness, encourage students to explore different activities and find hobbies they enjoy. Learning arts as hobbies can help students express their emotions, broaden their perceptions, and build their confidence and identities. Studying music is a form of emotional education. Music cannot teach us to have feelings. It is, however,  an excellent tool to help students explore and understand their feelings.  

2.  Self- Management
Self-management refers to self-regulation, being open to constructive criticism and suggestions, and being resilient when pursuing goals. In The Collapse of Parenting, Sax (2015) noted which of the following five points can predict an 11-year-old will be a happy, healthy person 20 years hence:
1.  IQ
2.  Grades
3.  Self-control
4.  Openness to new ideas
5.  Friendliness
The answer is self-control.

Impulse control is defined as the ability to delay the desire for immediate gratification (impulse control, n.d.) in attaining a goal. During the pandemic, children were stuck at home without their usual freedom or access to many of their daily activities. Unable to socialize with peers, exercise, or play outdoors, the potential to become sad and depressed increased. Teaching children about delayed gratification, that getting results takes time, and developing their ability to reinterpret a situation more positively—for instance, cool down to defuse anger—gives them a means to manage their feelings and learn to be patient.

One option for managing challenging situations is through the growth mindset. According to Dweck (2007), “This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others” (p. 4). As teachers, we can mitigate children’s stress when facing unpredictable situations by inviting them to sing, play instruments, and listen to music. These activities release pent-up feelings and serve as a means for them to let go of their frustration, anger, and depression. The Growth Mindset helps children manage their actions by doing something they enjoy.

Daily routines help children organize their day and time. With weekly goals from teachers (and parents), children have a clear idea of what they need to achieve in the short term. Making music practice a daily routine instills a sense of safety and predictability in which children learn to reflect on how they sing, practice their instruments, and move to music. Be mindful of giving them feedback, which helps them learn to accept the challenge to improve performance. Through playing, singing, and receiving feedback, children build a resilient attitude and increased self-esteem. This is also an excellent way to reinforce the mindset of delayed gratification.

3. Social Awareness
Social awareness, in this context, refers to children’s relationships with their fellow students, including people who are different from them. Music classes provide children with opportunities to engage in positive interactions and experiences with peers. Making music in an ensemble, from general music to choir and instrumental settings, provides opportunities for children to interact and use peer-to-peer critique to improve each other’s work. They learn to share and care, build respectful relationships, and empathize with classmates who might be struggling.

Children must first know who they are and value themselves before they are able to appreciate and respect others. This includes their self-image among friends and schoolmates. In addition, they need to recognize their own cultural and ethnic identities. This is especially true among groups with differing religious and cultural celebrations. Acknowledging children   is an effective approach to help them identify their similarities and differences, which furthers the development of self-awareness and an enhanced sense of community in their peer interactions.

Music reflecting students’ various cultures can foster self-identity, positive self-esteem, and healthy relationships not only among themselves, but also with families, siblings, and friends—even across long distances. When students face an uncomfortable situation or interact with people different from themselves, it is important for teachers to model an open mind to help them understand that behaviors differ from culture to culture. Modeling empathy and compassion as well will encourage exceptional learners to help their classmates who might need assistance.

4. Relationship Skills
When children progress from the egocentric (or preoperational) to the concrete operational stage of development, typically when they enter school, it represents one of their most significant leaps into society (Mooney, 2013). This is a critical time for developing healthy relationships with their peers. Their behavior patterns, nurtured by their involvement in day-to-day school activities, soon expand into the broader community.

Dealing with distinct individuals with various characteristics, moods, personalities, and intentions is relatively easy for those with high interpersonal intelligence (Gardner, 1983). Help your students understand that people have disparate opinions and that disagreement within a group is an excellent way to create healthy discussions. Make it a point to foster their interpersonal intelligence—understanding, distinguishing, and working comfortably with different individuals—and their ability to express feelings and ideas effectively while not taking disagreements personally. Children who evaluate, create, compose, and perform, music need this practical relationship skill for meaningful collaboration with their peers.

Gaston (1981) defined music’s emotional benefits as the nonverbal, aural expressions people use to show tender emotions, foster well-being, and draw people together through social and religious events. Music, along with paintings, poetry, and rhythms, are children’s leading sources for learning about worldwide cultural values and behaviors. Through music and dance, children build healthy relationships and begin to understand that, although humanity is diverse and complex, it is similar in many ways, such as recreation, work, communication, concerns with health and safety, and love for country, family, and friends. Children learn about holidays and heroes of other peoples and relate them to their own (Nye, 1979). Music conveys community information, an essential part of children’s educational content.

5. Responsible Decision Making
Students need to be able to identify challenges and find ways to solve problems constructively. Sharing and discussing their thoughts, agreeing and/or disagreeing, helps them evaluate the effectiveness of goal(s) and make any necessary adjustments. When teachers create an environment in which students feel safe and appreciated, they learn from each other, collaborate to create common goals, and make decisions that benefit the group.

To avoid making unwise decisions, students must learn how to be responsible for themselves and others. This mitigates egocentrism and doing things simply for their own benefit. For example, when playing or singing in a group, each person is responsible for making music beautifully. To encourage awareness of how students’ actions affect the group, and how the decisions and actions of the group affect how they feel about themselves and their various roles, teachers need to emphasize the importance of paying attention to the music the entire group is creating, not just their own.

What Is Nā Hopena Aʻo (“HĀ”)?

“Nā Hopena Aʻo (“HĀ”) is a framework of outcomes that reflects the Department of Education’s core values and beliefs in action throughout the public educational system of Hawaiʻi” (HĀ: BREATH, 2015, p. 4). The outcomes reflect the values of the Hawaiian culture, specifically for keiki in kindergarten through Grade 12 settings. “Underlying these outcomes is the belief that students need both social and emotional learning (SEL) skills and academic mindsets to succeed in college, careers, and communities locally and globally” (HĀ: BREATH, 2015, p. 1). According to HĀ: BREATH (2015), the outcomes are:

1. Strengthened Sense of Belonging

The first outcome is based on Belonging, which is related to the first SEL competency, self-awareness. Under this first outcome, Hawaiian keiki are encouraged to recognize their identities, cultures, and potential. This builds their confidence and pride in who they are, reinforcing their ability to interact and communicate with different people effectively and collaborate in generating a positive and healthy environment in the schools and communities.


This goal can be achieved by including Hawaiian hula and mele in music classes. Hula and mele related to ahupuaʻa—preserving the culture, protecting natural resources, and respecting the environment—should be included in regular classroom discussions. In addition, teachers should also include the music of immigrant students that represents their identities.

2. Strengthened Sense of Responsibility
Responsibility is related to SEL’s fifth competence, responsible decision-making. This outcome covers guiding keiki to make wise decisions within themselves and with people around them. For example, they must follow the routine wisely and attend school and class on time. A good work ethic, integrity, and a high moral attitude when interacting with peers and teachers are also essential.


To exhibit the attitude of Responsibility when making music, keikis need to work with peers and make decisions, not for personal benefit, but for the benefit of the group. For example, they need to avoid showing off by playing or singing their parts too loudly. When peers face challenges, they will help instead of teasing them. When performing a hula, keikis must be responsible and practice. Groupism is significant among Hawaiians; dancers perform the same motions and rhythm as one unit. Turning in different directions and moving differently than others detracts from the tradition and disrespects the meaning.

3. Strengthened Sense of Excellence
Excellence is related to SEL’s second competence, self-management. Students will be able to self-regulate and prioritize their time to complete what they need and not compete with each other. During this process, keiki will not hesitate to ask questions and seek ways to present quality work, though they will be given space to reflect and learn from their mistakes. Expectations are high, but goals are set within reason.


Keiki should be encouraged to take risks and be creative when making music. They are not expected to be perfect as long as they have tried their best. When improvising, keiki should create different ways to make new melodic and rhythmic patterns. Teachers assist by providing constructive feedback. Students will take the suggestions, be resilient, and present their best performance.

4. Strengthened Sense of Aloha
Aloha is related to SEL’s fourth competence, relationship skills. Under this outcome, keikis show care for the living environment, their schools, and their communities. They need to develop healthy relationships and be willing to spend time and energy working with different communities to make this Aloha land a better place to live.


Creating an Aloha spirit is essential when it comes to making music. Keikis share the joy of singing, dancing, and playing instruments for their families, schools, and communities without asking for a reward. In addition, they preserve the long tradition of Hawaiian mele and hula, which are a source of pride for Hawaiians.

5. Strengthened Sense of Total Well-being
Total well-being is an extension of SEL competencies 2 and 4, self-management and relationship skills. Under this outcome, “Manage stress and frustration levels appropriately” (HĀ: BREATH 2015, p. 2) is emphasized. Having a healthy lifestyle is the core of this outcome.

Music is a powerful tool to heal yet motivate human beings. Keikis can use music to express their emotions and release stress. Music making provides common goals and builds self-discipline and healthy relationships. Students help and encourage peers facing challenges, embrace the process when rehearsing and practicing, and share the joy and satisfaction when performing.

6. Strengthened Sense of Hawaiʻi

The Strengthened Sense of Hawaiʻi relates to SEL’s third competence, social awareness. Culturally Responsive Learning and Teaching (Gay, 2018) is the basis of this outcome. “A sense of Hawaiʻi is demonstrated through an appreciation for its rich history, diversity, and indigenous language and culture” (HĀ: BREATH, 2015, p. 2) and is the focus of this outcome. Keikis learn the history and cultural background, speak routine conversational words, and identify significant places in Hawaiʻi. This applies to the Hawaiian language and the languages and cultures of immigrants as well.


Music is believed to be a positive, vital instrument that can help people deal with their feelings. Motivating students to participate in the music classroom makes the learning process more exciting, encouraging, and meaningful for them. In music settings, keikis learn songs, chants, instruments, and dances from cultures of the Asian Pacific regions. Kumus (teachers) should keep materials in their native languages. Confer with culture bearers or, if this is not possible, seek traditional materials and present them in an authentic manner. Keikis will explore different cultural traditions, values, and contributions among different ethnic groups, yet exhibit hoʻihi value, respecting the differences and “Treat Hawaiʻi with pride and respect” (HĀ: BREATH, 2015, p. 2).

“Acculturation describes the process that occurs when the characteristics of a group are changed because of interaction with another cultural or ethnic group. When acculturation occurs, the interacting groups exchange cultural characteristics; thus, both are changed in the process” (Banks, 2014, p. 86). Acculturation is how people with different cultural backgrounds interact and adapt when they share a common space.

Our Hawaiian culture is unique yet diverse. Rather than trying to assimilate students with differing backgrounds into the mainstream culture, we need to help preserve their cultures and all cultures by presenting music materials through the culturally responsive learning process of SEL and instilling in our keiki the hoʻihi value—respecting cultural differences. As teachers, we can honor and preserve the hoʻihi value by helping our students embody Nā Hopena Aʻo through music and SEL.

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Sax, L. (2015). The collapse of parenting. Basic Books.