Music and Social Emotional Learning - the What, Why, and How?

by Chet-Yeng Loong

October 2023

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) became a popular topic during COVID-19 lockdown. During the pandemic, children were

forced to take classes online. After weeks and months of staring at screens and not interacting with peers, they weakened their ability to interact with others, faced challenges when expressing their feelings, and had difficulty understanding how others feel. Children and adults (parents) also experience stress and anxiety. Some families faced the emotional struggles of losing family members, being isolated, and lack of financial support.


Daniel Goleman (2012) defines Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as knowing what one and those around them are feeling and

handling those feelings skillfully. The fundamentals of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, management of emotions, motivation, and impulse control. Social Emotional Learning is the ability to manage learning through regulating one's emotions and interacting with peers. SEL strategies can be divided into five categories: i) guide children to know themselves and identify their potential (self-awareness); ii) self-regulate, be open to constructive critics and suggestions, be resilient (self-management); iii) be aware of their relationships among friends, including people who are different from them (social awareness); iv) construct healthy relationships (relationship skills); and v) 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 oneself and how others see us, and be

particularly aware of one’s emotions, fears, and desires. According to Goleman (1995), self-awareness helps us to know what we feel. Self-awareness is the gut sense that we use to make decisions. This skill guides children to discover themselves, identify their potential, and recognize their strengths and weaknesses.


To create self-awareness, children should explore different activities and find their hobbies to form their identities.

Learning arts as hobbies can help children express their emotions, strengthen their perceptions of other views, and build their confidence and identities. Studying music is a kind of emotional education. Music cannot teach us to have feelings; instead, it teaches us about our feelings. Music is an excellent tool to help students explore their emotional feelings. 


2. Self-Management


Self-management is about self-regulation, being open to constructive criticism and suggestions, and being resilient when

achieving goals. In Leonard Sax: "The Collapse of Parenting" (2015), the author mentioned, among the below five points, which factors can predict an 11-year-old will be a happy and healthy person 20 years later:

a. IQ

b. Grades

c. Self-control

d. Openness to new ideas

e. Friendliness

The answer is self-control.


Impulse control is defined as the ability to delay impulse in attaining a goal. During the pandemic, children are stuck at

home. Without socializing with peers, exercising, and playing outdoors, they can easily be trapped in a sad mood and depression. If children are taught to reinterpret a situation more positively, cooling down to defuse anger can foster the management of feelings. In addition, children did not have the usual freedom and could not access many things they used to have daily. This is the time when parents could teach children about delayed gratification. By having delayed gratification, children learn to wait to get rewards. It takes time to get the result; those who have patience are the ones who get the treasure.


One way to manage 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). While feeling stressed and facing unpredictable situations, we can release our tension by singing, playing instruments, and listening to music. We can let go of our frustration, anger, and depression because the feelings are flowing and not getting stuck in the heart. With the Growth Mindset, children manage their actions by doing something they like. 


Structuring routines in children's lives will help them structure their daily lives, and thus, children will need to learn when

to do things when they are supposed to. Parents and schools may set weekly goals to help children recognize the goals they need to achieve in the short term. By laying out the plans, students will learn to be organized in learning and manage their daily lives. 


Practicing musical activities can become a daily routine for the children. Setting a routine provides a sense of safety and

predictability. Children learn to reflect how they practice their instruments, their singing, and their movement to music and music videos. By constantly receiving feedback and accepting the challenge to improve their performance, children build a resilient attitude and increase self-esteem through playing and singing. This is an excellent way to instill the mindset of delayed gratification.


3. Social Awareness

Social awareness is regarding the relationships among friends, including people who are different from them. Music

classes provide children with opportunities to have positive interactions and experiences with peers. Making music in an ensemble setting from general music to choir and instrumental settings, gives children many opportunities to interact, peer-to-peer critique, to improve each other's work. They learn to share and care, build respectful relations and have empathy for the struggles of the classmates in their class. 


Children must first know who they are and value themselves before appreciating and respecting others; this includes

self-image among friends and schoolmates. In addition, students need to recognize their own cultural and ethnic identities. This is especially true among people who have different religious and cultural celebrations. School teachers and parents guide children to identify similarities and differences and build a sense of self-awareness when interacting with peers to reflect the diverse cultures in their communities.


Multicultural music reflecting children’s identities can help develop self-identities, positive self-esteem, and healthy

relationships with families, siblings, and friends (even across long distances). When students face an uncomfortable situation or interact with people different from themselves, they must be guided with an open mind and understand that people from different cultures behave differently. When they have exceptional learners in their classroom, they need to be taught to have feelings of empathy and compassion and help those who need assistance.


 4. Relationship Skills

When children come out of the egocentric stage of development, when they enter school, it is one of the most significant

leaps into the social world they will have made. Children need to construct healthy relationships among friends. As children become involved in the school's activities, they soon expand into the broader community.


Children need to learn that people have different opinions, and disagreement within a group is an excellent way to

create healthy discussions. Children must effectively express their feelings and ideas and not take disagreements personally. Interpersonal intelligence is understanding, distinguishing, and working comfortably with different individuals. Dealing with distinct individuals with various characteristics, moods, personalities, and intentions is relatively easy for those with high interpersonal intelligence (Gardner, 1983). Children who perform, evaluate, create, and compose music need this practical relationship skill to intervene with their peers.        


Gaston (1981) defined music's emotional benefits as the nonverbal, aural expressions that people use to show

tender emotions, foster well-being, and draw people together in social and religious events. Music is children's leading source for learning about people's values and cultural behaviors worldwide. Music, paintings, poetry, and rhythms help children absorb the concepts of people and their lives. Through music and dance, children build healthy relationships; they are introduced to the fact that world humanity is the same or different in many aspects. Through music, they learn about fun and recreation, work, communication, concerns with health and safety, and people's love for country, family, and friends. They learn about holidays and heroes of other peoples and relate them to their own (Nye, 1979). Community information is an essential part of young children's music and social studies content.


 5. Responsible Decision-Making

Students need to identify challenges and find ways to solve the problems constructively. By sharing and discussing their

thoughts, students will agree or disagree and evaluate the effectiveness of goal(s) yet might still need to make further adjustments to achieve the goal(s) effectively. In a safe environment, students learn from each other, create a common goal, and make decisions that benefit the whole group.


Children need to learn how to be responsible for themselves and others. This is to avoid having a personal ego and do

things just for their benefit. When playing or singing in a group, each person is responsible for making music beautifully; making unwise decisions might make the performance sound unmusical. They need to pay attention to the music that the whole group and not individuals make. They should become self-aware of how their actions impact the group and how the decisions and actions of the group impact how they feel as a musician, a student, and a person. 


Nā Hopena A‘o (“HĀ”)


“Nā Hopena A‘o (“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 Hawaii” (HĀ: BREATH, 2015, p. 4). The outcomes reflect the values of the Hawaiian culture, specifically for keiki in K-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 divided into the points below:

  1. Strengthened Sense of Belonging
  2. Strengthened Sense of Responsibility
  3. Strengthened Sense of Excellence
  4. Strengthened Sense of Aloha
  5. Strengthened Sense of Total Well-being
  6. Strengthened Sense of Hawai‘i

The first outcome is based on Belonging, which is related to the first competency of SEL, Self-awareness. Under this first

outcome, the Hawaiian keiki are guided to recognize their identities, cultures, and potential. By building their confidence and being proud of who they are, they will interact with different people and communicate effectively to build a positive and healthy environment in the schools and communities. 


We can achieve this goal by including Hawaiian hula and mele in our music classes. Hula and mele that are related to

ahupua`a, preserving the culture, protecting natural resources, and preventing global warming should be included in discussions that occur regularly in the classrooms. In addition, teachers should also include other immigrants’ music that represents their identities. 


The second outcome is about Responsibility; this is related to SEL's fifth competence, Responsible decision-making. This

outcome is about 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. 


When making music, to exhibit the attitude of Responsibility, keikis need to work with peers and make wise decisions,

not for self-ego and benefits; instead, it is for the group. For example, avoid playing or singing their parts too loud to show off. When peers face challenges, they will help instead of teasing their friends. When performing a hula, keikis must be responsible and practice the hula. Groupism is significant among Hawaiians; the dancers should perform like one unit when they dance with the same motion and rhythm. Turning in different directions and making movements different from others will ruin the group's reputation.


The third outcome is about Excellence, 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 do not want to compete. During this process, keiki will not hesitate to ask questions and seek ways to present quality work. However, they are given space to reflect and learn from their mistakes. High expectations are expected, but the goal is set reasonably.


In a music setting, 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 should provide constructive feedback; students will take the suggestions, be resilient, and present their best performance. 


The fourth HĀ’s outcome is Aloha, which is related to SEL's fourth competence, Relationship Skills. Under this outcome,

keikis need to show care for the living environment, schools, and communities. They need to construct healthy relationships, be willing to spend their time and energy working with different communities and 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. On top of this, they also preserve the long tradition of Hawaiian mele and hula, which Hawaiians are proud of.


The fifth HĀ’s outcome is Total Well-being, which is an extension of SEL #2 and #4 outcomes: Self-Management and

Relationship Skills. Under this outcome, “Manage stress and frustration levels appropriately” (HĀ: BREATH 2015, p. 2) was 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 emotional feelings and

release their stress. When making music, keikis have common goals, build healthy relationships, and help and encourage peers when facing challenges. They will build self-discipline, enjoy the process when rehearsing and practicing, and share the joy and satisfaction when performing. 


The last HĀ’s outcome is a Sense of Hawai`i, which is related to SEL's third competence, Social Awareness. Culturally

Responsive Learning and Teaching (Gay, 2018) is the basis of structuring this outcome. “A sense of Hawai‘i is demonstrated through an appreciation for its rich history, diversity and indigenous language and culture” (HĀ: BREATH, 2015, p. 2) is the focus of this standard. Keikis learn the history and cultural background, speak daily conversation words, and identify significant places in Hawai`i. This applies to the Hawaiian language and other immigrants’ languages and cultures. 




Music is believed to be a positive, vital instrument that can help people deal with feelings. Motivating students'

participation  in the music classroom will help them look forward to the music activities, thus making the learning process more exciting and meaningful. In the music settings, keikis will learn songs, chants, instruments, and dances from various cultures from the Asian Pacific regions. Kumus should keep materials in their native languages; when possible, confer with people native to the materials or look for authentic materials; work to present materials authentically. Keikis will explore different cultural traditions, values, and contributions among different ethnic groups, yet exhibit ho`ihi value, respecting the differences and “Treat Hawai`i 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 become enmeshed; changes occur when they share a common space. 


As the only minority state in the country, it is our job to preserve our unique yet diverse identities. Instead of trying to

assimilate students with diverse backgrounds into the mainstream culture, we need to help preserve the cultures of our students and all cultures by presenting music materials using the culturally responsive learning process and instilling the ho`ihi value - respecting cultural differences in our keiki. We can attain the ho`ihi value by helping our students recognize their identities and potentials, making wise decisions, being responsible to their community, self-regulating, cultivating a well-being mentality, and exhibiting the Aloha spirit and a vigorous sense of Hawai`i through SEL and music. 



Banks, J. (2014). Introduction to Multicultural Education (6th ed.). San Francisco: Pearson.


Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (n.d.). Advancing social and emotional learning.


Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Publishing Group.


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.


Gaston, E. T. (1981). Leader in scientific thought on music in therapy and education, Journal of Research in Music Education, 29 (4), p.279-286. 


Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: theory, research, and practice (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.


Goleman, D. (2012). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1st ed.). Bantam publisher. 


HĀ: BREATH. (2015). Nā Hopena A‘o Standards.


Nye, V. T. (1983). Music for Young Children (3rd ed.). Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown Company.