Creating Positive Childhood Experiences with Music

By NAfME Member Edward Varner

This article was first published in the January 2024 issue of Journal of General Music Education.

Abstract

The purpose of this column is to provide a quick introduction to the concept of positive childhood experiences (PCEs) as an important support for the value of music education and music teachers endeavoring to create safe, predictable settings for children to be, learn, and grow. Music learning environments, it would seem, are premium opportunities for schools looking to play a role in providing students with PCEs. As such, it is important for music educators to be more aware of the significant role they play in supporting students by providing them with positive relationships and experiences to safeguard healthy childhood development.


The music teachers I have been fortunate enough to know and work with consistently strive to create safe, predictable settings for children to be, learn, and grow. They proactively endeavor to increase their ability to positively influence the holistic education of students by committing to the creation of healing centered music learning environments in which each student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. They reflect on their practice, they find natural alignments between the music curriculum and social emotional learning (SEL) competencies, and they work to ensure as many students as possible have a positive experience with music. Their work is an important, yet often underrecognized, defense against many of the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) encountered by so many of our students.

A growing field of study focuses on positive childhood experiences (PCEs) and the understanding of how they can help children build resilience and overcome ACEs. ACEs have been significantly studied and are well known to have lasting, negative effects on children. It is now commonly known that a child’s mental, emotional, and physical health can be dramatically impaired due to adverse and traumatic experiences. As a result, there have been prominent efforts by school and community leaders to reduce the number of ACEs children face. However, focusing only on ACEs reveals an underdeveloped narrative of child development “as there are people with a high number of ACEs who have fared well in adulthood as well as people with no ACEs who experience mental and emotional difficulties as adults” (Liang, 2021).

Liang (2021) shared promising research demonstrating how PCEs may contribute to improved mental health and social emotional outcomes in people. PCEs appear to have lasting, positive effects on children that can potentially counter ACEs. One particularly strong example shared was a survey conducted by Bethell et al. (2019). Their survey of 6,000+ adults found that those with greater numbers of PCEs were more likely to seek out social emotional support when needed than those adults with fewer PCEs. Likewise, they explained that adults with greater PCEs reported having better mental health than those with fewer PCEs. “The association between PCEs and improved outcomes was true even among those respondents who had a history of ACEs” (Liang, 2021). These findings suggest an important support for the value of the work being done by music teachers as they endeavor to create safe, predictable settings for children to be, learn, and grow. That is, as they work to create PCEs.

Music Education and PCEs

PCEs emphasize feelings of connectedness and safety. Music learning environments, it would seem, are premium opportunities for schools looking to play a role in providing students with PCEs. This, I believe, is especially important for our students who are currently experiencing ACEs at home. Of the seven PCEs identified by Bethell et al. (2019), there are four that align particularly well with music programming—listed below along with examples of how music teachers contribute to their students’ positive experiences.

(1) Enjoyment and participation in community traditions: Students celebrate meaningful moments with their family and community. Music teachers have many opportunities during the school year to create valuable musical traditions for their students to participate in and be part of the larger community. Holiday concerts/performances, in-class performances and demonstrations, assemblies, and school/community events are opportunities where music teachers create important community experiences for students. Teachers should design and refine these opportunities for students to share music traditions with their family and friends at home and at school.

(2) Feelings of belonging: Students have positive relationships and feel connected to others. Music teachers can help ensure all students feel like they belong through the careful creation of ensemble performance opportunities. Group singing, group drumming, and Orff/Kodály experiences help to reinforce social belonging.

(3) Feelings of being supported by friends: Students feel like their friends are supportive during difficult times. Music teachers can incorporate SEL competencies into their curriculum to help students improve communication and connection with one another. The key components of SEL are self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, self-management, and relationship skills (CASEL, 2022). These components are generally based on the goals of knowing oneself and others, making responsible decisions, caring for others, and knowing how to behave in specific situations.

(4) Having at least two non-parent adults who genuinely care: Students have supportive adults outside of the home who are positive influences. Music teachers can join with other adults in the school (e.g., teachers, counselors, coaches, custodians) to develop healthy relationships with students. Music teachers are often positive non-parent adults who genuinely care.

dad and daughter smiling and looking at each other

Photo: MoMo Productions / DigitalVision Collection via Getty Images

Most music learning experiences help students understand concepts of dedication and self-confidence while providing opportunities for students to “practice and rehearse being self-aware, socially aware, and making good decisions” (Edgar, 2017). I believe there is also a natural alignment between our work to help students have PCEs and other school support efforts attempting to benefit students work to build trust in others and develop as human beings. PCEs empower children by providing support systems and helping students feel more comfortable when seeking out help when they need it. It is important that music educators are aware of the significant role they play in supporting students when they provide them with positive relationships and experiences that safeguard and protect healthy childhood development. In addition to reducing ACEs, increasing PCEs appears to be equally important to healthy child development. In this way, music teachers can help their students emphasize the positive aspects of themselves, rather than dwelling on what’s wrong.

References:

Bethell C., Jones J., Gombojav N., Linkenbach J., Sege R. (2019). Positive childhood experiences and adult mental and relational health in a statewide sample: Associations across adverse childhood experiences levels. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(11), e193007.

CASEL. (2022). Guide to schoolwide SEL.

Edgar S. (2017). Music education and social emotional learning: The heart of teaching music. GIA.

Liang J. (2021). The importance of positive childhood experiences (PCEs)Center for Educational Improvement.

About the author:

Varner Headshot 1.IMG_2625NAfME member Edward Varner has been an educator, musician, actor, and arts education specialist and advocate for more than 32 years. He has presented creativity and the importance of play, SEL, music, arts, language experience, and literacy workshops at a wide variety of local, regional, National, and International conferences and strongly believes we can never stop recruiting teachers and administrators to our cause! Ed has published about the alignments between arts education and social emotional learning competencies and continues to advocate for quality music and arts programming in our schools and community. www.edwardvarner.com #peacefuldrummer

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

March 22, 2024

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Copyright

March 22, 2024. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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