Teaching Self-Care for Middle & High School: Music

This lesson has young people explore how we can use music to care for ourselves during times of stress - and share music they find calming with their peers. 

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 disproportionately impacted 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, or face illness.  Some are also struggling with new responsibilities, uncertainty, loss, 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 though, 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.

Music, Movement and Connection

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

We know that the right kind of music can help generate excitement and get us moving.  It can help us shake out some of our concerns, anxieties, and stress as well.  At the same time, we can use music as a noise cancellation tool, as a way to filter out the distracting, sometimes unwelcome, sounds around us. 

Coming together in song can help our students connect with their teachers and their peers, it can help us build and maintain community remotely, as different communities around the country and world have shown these past few months.  Cities have encouraged sing alongs: in Chicago (skip ad) and in New York here and here.  Resistance choirs have organized as well (such as here and here).

Music in general can bring people together, which is important especially during this time of Covid-19 when physical distancing is the norm. Research has shown that absence of connection can cause distress and disease in people.  Social connection, the antidote, is a core human need. In fact, social connection is increasingly recognized as being essential to nearly every aspect of health and well-being.

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 may not be enough sometimes.

Regular practices like listening to music, moving to music, and coming together in song can help us with the uncertainties that Covid-19 presents us with.

Opening Ceremony

Invite students to spend some time watching or just listening with eyes closed to this video of nature sights and sounds, which many might find calming. You might start with just a few minutes if it’s hard for students to be still.

Alternatively, consider simply playing some relaxing music for students to sit with and listen to.


Defining Self-Care

Ask students what the term “self care” means to them. Does it conjure up the idea of buying somethings to pamper yourself? Or does it mean something else to you?

Work with students to come up with a definition that includes some of the following ideas:

“Self care refers to a series of activities and practices that we engage in on a regular basis to calm, heal, and preserve ourselves, physically and psychologically, and to reduce stress in our lives so we can be our best selves under any given circumstances.”

Brainstorm Different Ways of Self-Care

Brainstorm a self-care list with students. 

  • Ask, what are they doing to keep sane and fit during this Covid time?  Chart students’ responses. 

Get a show of hands of how many students practice self-care on a regular basis.  Ask how that is working for them. 

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. 

If it’s hard to get students to start brainstorming, consider coming up with a list of your own and inviting 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. Gauge student interest in practicing some of the things on the list together in the coming weeks. 

Maybe student volunteers can share out with their peers how they practice specific forms of self-care, so that they can practice together as a community.

And while it's important to ask young people for practices that work for them and give them opportunities to share with peers, over the coming weeks, we'll also be sharing different practices for you to explore with students.  Part 1, below, touches on self-care through music.

Moving, Singing & Connecting through Music

Before coming together for this session, ask students to think about the music that has helped them during the pandemic so far, or during other difficult times.  It might be music that helps lift their spirits, holds them in sadness, or assuages their fears.  Music perhaps that’s rejuvenating or relaxing, or simply serves as a noise cancellation tool.

Also ask them to think about songs that they like to sing along to, that they like to sing with others, or that they think the class might like to sing together. Ask them to find, if they can, a link to a video of the song, or just the lyrics to share with the class.

Introduce music to students as a means of self-regulation.  Encourage students to simply listen and/or mindfully move along to some soothing jazz, a slow blues number, or some rhythmic Samba or Bossa Nova, in a seated or standing position. 

Alternatively, consider some of the following ways in which we, with our students, can possibly shake out or move with some of our sadness, fears, concerns and anxieties:

And if movement is not where your students are at, consider listening to music while watching time-lapse visuals of flowers (or other soothing imagery online):

Consider showing the following BBC report The Social Movement to Sing against Coronavirus to introduce and frame the idea of coming together in music and song.

  • Ask students to think about what was shared in the video about how the coronavirus is affecting people and how music can support us.

Now ask students to share songs they thought of that ahead of time that they’d like to play and perhaps have everyone sing along to. Have students introduce the songs they picked and invite them to speak to what the music has meant to them.  Share the lyrics and sing, hum and/or move together in virtual space. 

Other songs to consider, that have been used to bring people together in cities across the country are:

  • New York, New York by Frank Sinatra, watch snippets on social media here.
  • Lean on Me by Bill Withers, watch snippets on social media here and here.
  • You’ve Got a Friend by Carole King, watch a clip here on Fox9 in Minneapolis.

And if you want to combine song with dance, consider a new covid era variation on Miriam Makeba's 1967 classic Pata Pata, a song the BBC recently called "one of the most infectious songs ever made" and possibly "the world's most defiantly joyous song"

You may also use one of the virtual choir and musical cast postings on the internet to sing along with.  Consider starting with The Aelolians Oakwood University Alumni 2020 "We Shall Overcome" and reflect on and discuss the introduction and images at the start of the video:

  • Rise Up a collaboration of the Boston Children’s Choir, with Denver Children’s Choir, Children’s Chorus of Washington, DC, Gondwana Choirs, Sydney, and Cincinnati Boychoir.  Lyrics can be found here.
  • You’ll Never Walk Alone, from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel, performed by 300 people from 15 different countries in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Lyrics can be found here.
  • True Colors by Camden Voices, and lyrics can be found here.
  • You’ve Got a Friend by the worldwide cast of BEAUTIFUL for The Actors Fund.
  • You’ve Got a Friend by London Voices Choir, campaigning for Women’s Aid. Lyrics can be found here.
  • Alexander Hamilton by Original Broadway Cast and guests.  Lyrics can be found here.

Note: If students are interested in making a virtual choir video like the ones above, check out these resources:

If your students are more interested in connecting through rhythm, consider some of the videos below.  And remember, get students engaged in the sharing and the teaching.  Some of these videos are complex and can be intimidating for some of us. Invite young people to step into the teacher’s shoes by engaging their peers in ways they may not have considered before:


After any of these experiences with music, get a sense from students what it was like for them.  Ask them:

  • What was the activity like for them?
  • How did they feel before the activity and how they feel now?

This series is meant for students to explore different kinds of self-care, so reflecting on what works, what doesn't, and why is important.