Teaching Self-Care for Grades K-2: Music

Music can be healing, uplifting, and calming for both adults and children. This lesson has young people experience how we can use music to care for ourselves during times of stress. 


To the Teacher:

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to play out and schools remain closed, we're hearing from teachers and students alike that the long-term reality of the situation is sinking in.

This new Covid world is lasting longer than most of us had anticipated. The changes and losses so far have been hard to handle, overwhelming at times. And, as is too often the case, they’ve been disproportionately devastating for poor families and families of color.  And now the uncertainty around when this will all be over, how we will transition out of it, and what will be on the other end, is starting to dawn, and wear, on people. It’s uncomfortable and brings with it further anxiety, stress and exhaustion.

Young people are absorbing all this, including the changing moods of the adults in their lives, as family members are forced to do hazardous work, are laid off, face illness or death. Some are also struggling with new responsibilities, uncertainty, isolation, and grief. 

Self care for us, the adults, is key so we can stay strong and healthy ourselves to support our children at this time.  Self-care may also be one of the most important things we can teach young people at a time like this.  In this part four of our series of lessons and activities for the corona age, we’ll focus on self-care practices for all of our K-12 students, from the youngest to the oldest.  

About Self Care With Students

In the process of engaging young people in social and emotional learning (SEL) and mindful awareness practice, we naturally begin to teach them about self-care. One of the core competencies of SEL is “self awareness.” With increased self-awareness, students can begin developing practices and skills that they can employ to take care of themselves. This can include learning how to center themselves, stay grounded and present, calm themselves down, gain insight and perspective, and decide on possible next steps to meet their needs – all while recognizing and respecting the needs of others.

Rather than telling young people what to do and how to do it, our goal should be to support students in cultivating the awareness, skills and practices, that they find useful. They need to be able to make their own choices in the moment about how to handle themselves and the situation at hand – whether we, as adults, are around or not.  Building on the activities already shared in our Covid series (especially those around recognizing and naming feelings and then managing those feelings, a.k.a “naming to tame our feelings”) the activities below support young people in developing the capacity for self-care. 

Before we continue, you might consider the tree of contemplative practices created by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Consider the multiple branches as ways to practice different kinds of self (and community) care and healing. 

Think about your own practices. What has worked for you? How did you come to that practice? Now think about your students, their life experiences, their personalities, and who they are in the world. What might work for them? Have you asked? Have you given them opportunities to try different ways, to share practices that have worked for them perhaps? 

Consider this series on self-care as a joint exploration with your students so that you can all learn together.

Brainstorm: Things That Help Us When We Feel Sad, Angry, Anxious …

Consider beginning this brainstorming activity by having students watch a segment of the cartoon on “Emotions” by StoryBots that begins at 2:07 and ends at 4:10. It includes two parts: The first includes advice from young people when one of the bots is feeling blue, the second is a song about different ways to handle feeling blue.

Next (or to begin with), let students know that our feelings are “all okay.” And there are many things we can do to when we feel sad, angry, or anxious. Brainstorm with students a list of things we can do when we’re feeling this way. Ask students what works for them.

You may want to chart what students share, if you can. You might end up with a list that reads:

  • Getting a hug from my mom (or others)
  • Petting my dog
  • Playing with my cat
  • Having a good cry
  • Listening to the birds outside my window singing a happy/sad song
  • Listening to music
  • Singing (ask students if they have a particular song)
  • Dancing
  • Yoga
  • Taking deep breaths or belly breaths
  • Counting to 10
  • Counting backwards
  • Squeezing and releasing different muscles
  • Remembering the things I love about myself
  • Having a parent tuck me in at night
  • Keeping my nightlight on
  • Playing with my baby sibling
  • Having a snack
  • Drawing a picture (of how I feel)
  • Throwing a ball or Frisbee with a sibling or parent, kicking a ball, running around the courtyard outside
  • Going to the park (while keeping our distance from others)
  • Staring out the window
  • Doodling on a piece of paper, etc.

Note:  Make sure that the things on the list are helpful in that they don’t cause harm in the short or long term, like punching walls, or eating too much junk food. 

And if it’s hard to get students to start brainstorming, consider coming up with a list of your own and invite students to respond by standing up, raising their hands or finding other creative ways that work for your students to show that this is something they do or have tried before. 

Facilitate a discussion about what students have tried before and how that’s worked out for them.  Ask students if they’re interested in doing some of the things on this list together in the coming weeks?  Maybe different students can share out with their peers how they practice these different things and then they can practice together.

And while it’s important to ask young people for the practices that work for them and give them opportunities to share with peers, you can also introduce a range of helpful practices to your students.  The lesson below focuses on self-care through music, movement and connection.

Music, Movement and Connection

Music can be soothing. It can lift our spirits, hold us in our sadness, and even assuage our fears. Music can be both rejuvenating and relaxing.

As elementary school teachers, we know that the right kind of music can help generate excitement in our students and get them moving. It can also shake out some of their wiggles, concerns, and anxieties. At the same time, music can sometimes be an effective noise cancellation tool, offering children a way to filter out the distracting, sometimes unwelcome, sounds around them. 

Sing-alongs can help our students connect with their teachers and their peers, which is important especially during this time of Covid-19 when physical distancing is the norm.  Social connection is increasingly seen as a core human need and research is showing that absence of connection can actually cause distress and disease in people. Whether through music or in other ways, social connection is now recognized as being essential to nearly every aspect of health and well-being.

So music can be nurturing and healing. Throughout history, singing (in community) has also been a way to empower, protest, and resist. Music and song can be used as a direct form of resistance and show of resilience. According to indigenous scholar and media maker Jarrett Martineau: “It's … the opportunity for us to come together and elevate and amplify what's happening on the ground, to the community, and also to inspire people for change."

In these many diverse ways, music holds power and has health benefits. The right kind of music, moreover, can help us to slow down and center ourselves, which can help with focus. Of course, simply turning down the stimulation for the youngest of our students doesn’t mean they will magically slow down, calm and center themselves.  Students need practice to help them do that.  Music can help with that, too. 


Move to the Music

To practice self-regulation, you can start by encouraging students to simply listen and/or move to some soothing jazz, a slow blues number, or some rhythmic Samba or Bossa Nova, in a seated or standing position.  You can invite them to close their eyes, if they’re comfortable doing so.  If not, simply ask them to pick a spot on the floor or wall in front of them to rest their gaze.

If using movement, invite students to slowly make their movements bigger as you turn the music up. As you slowly turn the music back down, students’ movements should get smaller. Model how it’s done by participating yourself if possible.  Turn the music all the way up, with big movements, and all the way back down making movements smaller and smaller. 

When the music is turned down all the way, this is the sign for you and your students to quiet your bodies fully, sitting or standing in place without moving. 

Consider a few different “rounds” of this, inviting students to move along according to the volume of the music.  And as you wrap up (with our without movement) ask students what that was like for them?  How did they feel at the start?  How do they feel now?

Using Music to Shake Out Your Wiggles and Sillies

If you’d like to motivate students to shake out their wiggles and sillies, consider some of the following artists with their shaking-out sing-alongs:

Of course if you want your students to settle after shaking out their wiggles, you may need to intentionally slow down their movements, their bodies and their heartbeat, as they sit down and possibly take some deep, slow breaths.

  • A song that that allows students to get some of their wiggles out, while transitioning into a calmer, more focused space, is Nancy Kopland’s “Walk Around.” 

Sing-Alongs and Drumming to Connect with Peers

Sing-alongs and whole-body drum-alongs can help promote connection and harmony among students.

Ask them for their favorite songs and/or consider introducing some of the following for students to hum, sing, and move along to, in community:

Get Student Feedback

After each sing or drum along, consider asking students questions like:

  • What was that like for you?
  • How did singing/drumming together make you feel?
  • How did you feel before the singing/drumming?  How do you feel now?

Use student feedback to guide you in what songs and/or other self care practices to introduce going forward.  And if time allows and energy remains, ask:

  • How did you feel about the words we sung together?

Following the Ubuntu Train song you may ask students:

  • Who has heard of the word Ubuntu?  What does it mean?

The concept of Ubuntu comes from the Zulu language of Southern Africa. It is often translated into English as: “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.  I am because we are.” According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa: Ubuntu speaks to the interconnectedness of humanity.  It is the essence of being human. You can explain to young people that it’s about us all being connected to each other and to the world. 

Following the Gotta Be Me song you may ask students: 

  • What makes you you? 
  • What makes you feel good about you?  What makes you proud?
  • What makes us the same? 
  • What makes us different?

Following any of the Barefoot Books songs, ask students also about the imagery, what they noticed, liked, and what it made them think of. 

Note to the Teacher: 

Remember that when using music with young students, you don’t need to limit yourself to music specifically composed for them. There is a range of beautiful and inspiring music from different cultures that we can use to expand young people’s horizons and/or have students see their heritage reflected in your teaching. 

Consider playing jazz classics, blues greats, inspirational songs of the civil rights movement, soothing reggae songs, South and Central American rhythms, folk, rock, or other music that allows your students explore music from around the world in all its richness. 

A master teacher in Atlanta, Mr. Holingworth, often put on Ain’t No Stopping Us Now by McFadden and Whitehead right after his pre-K class had nap time. Slowly his students would rise from their cots, rubbing their eyes, stretching a little. Then they made their way to the rug and started bopping along with the music.  As the words kicked in, they used gestures they’d been taught along with the lyrics: They put up their right hand for “ain’t no stopping us now,” made a running in place motion for “we’re on the move,” and wiggled their hips and arms for “we’ve got the groove.”  It was heartwarming to see these little people find such joy in this inspirational classic.