Building Empathy in the Music Classroom

Diversity and Inclusion:

Building Empathy in the Music Classroom

By NAfME member Manju Durairaj


Change is the ever constant. The field of education is evolving rapidly to accommodate the learning needs of this generation of students. Increasing knowledge and research on learning styles, the influx of technology in education, the immediate access to information and happenings around the world, the heightened awareness of ability, racial, cultural, gender, and socioeconomic structures in the classroom impact the social-emotional functions of a student.

Social-emotional functioning impacts learning, which in turn impacts the delivery of instruction, which should give us teachers cause to frequently reevaluate how and what we teach.

It is, however, our collective responsibility as 21st-century teachers of young children not only to provide them with content knowledge and strategies for learning, analyzing, and synthesizing that knowledge, but also the skills to become cognitively healthy and responsible adults. These skills include developing self-awareness, treating themselves and each other with respect, taking responsibility, communicating effectively, and collaborating in an increasingly connected world.


Four Feet Two Sandals


Building Empathy

This session illustrates how to consciously weave these skills into the music curriculum.

The empathy-building activities in the session are inspired by multicultural music and diverse children’s books. They address the growing need for building empathy in young children so that they can negotiate the world in a healthy and responsible manner.

Children’s literature may be used to build awareness and acceptance of self and others while working toward a common musical objective. Through movement, singing, playing instruments, body percussion, active listening, and composing activities students can learn to work cooperatively, think critically, and refer to collaboration rubrics while developing creative solutions to issues of bullying, gender identity, refugee and immigrant situations, poverty, racial and ethnic similarities and differences, and being labeled and stereotyped.

Through diverse children’s literature, movement, and multicultural song, dance, speech, and instrumental pieces that are taught with as close a simulation to authenticity as possible students may be led to discover, explore, and create while acquiring a respectful acceptance of the similarities and differences that exist among themselves, their community, and the larger world.


Some activities in the session are outlined below.

Hush! A Thai Lullaby

Hush! A Thai Lullaby by Minfong Ho and Holly Meade
ISBN-13: 978-0399257742


Lullabies are universal. The book describes a Thai mother trying to put her baby to sleep. The book is used as a window into another culture. Simple melody and orchestration guide students from the unknown to the known.



Red by Michael Hall

ISBN-10: 0062252070, ISBN-13: 978-0062252074
Music: Two Xylophone Pieces, Album: Music for Children Margaret Murray Vol. 4 P 46 # 3 and 2, or any piece or pieces put together in ABA form


The book Red by Michael Hall, is a simple story but is a wonderful way to mirror labels and stereotypes in the greater society. It leads one to reflect on how one perceives oneself based on society’s view of oneself; it shows well-meaning and well-intended people trying to fix what is perceived as a problem, and how the problem itself is not a problem but a different way of being. Heavy issues that are gently unfolded by a crayon story of a blue crayon in a red label.

The following movement activity may be adapted without the writing pieces for younger kids. It can be just a simple movement activity that simply raises awareness of oneself and others based on the story, or it can lend itself to a larger discussions involving a) stereotyping or labeling and/or b) how we perceive ourselves, how we think others perceive us, and once we become aware of this, how we would modify/adapt our behaviors, and if we do so, can we modify/adapt in a manner that does not change the essence of who we are.


Each Kindness



  • Listen to the Music and identify the form. Prepare students to listen to the story in the context of performing it as a movement activity.
  • Read the book displaying the pictures. Projecting the pictures on a larger screen is very effective.
  • Before reading the book again, ask students to pick a color without articulating it aloud, and to pay closer attention to what that crayon says and does.
  • Display the Feelings word wall and ask students to silently pick 2-3 words that describe their crayon.
  • Display the Movement word wall and ask students to pick 2-3 words that fit with the Feelings.
  • Students still have not articulated any of their choices aloud. Have students explore their movements in general space, while playing the first of the Two Xylophone Pieces, Album: Music for Children 4 P 46 # 3 
  • Ask students to pick a scarf/ribbon of their color and explore the movement again.
  • If doing the writing piece, put students into small groups of 2-3 and have them write out their Feelings and Movement words.
  • Discuss briefly the story in the context of presenting it as a movement activity. Frame it as three segments – Introduction of the crayons (showcasing their personalities); Statement of the situation (everyone tries to help or fix Red); Resolution (accepting Red for who he is and affirming him).
  • Listen to the entire Two Xylophone Pieces, Album: Music for Children 4 P 46 # 3 and 2.
  • Display the visual of the Group Movement Planner, and guide students through working together on creating contrasting movements for the different sections, aligning it with the three segments of the story.
  • Display the Team Work rubric to reinforce group work etiquette.
  • Put students into groups (6-8), and let them explore.
  • Put on the music and let them explore and make modifications.
  • Have students perform for each other.
  • Have students reflect and discuss the book and their own experiences.


About the author:

Manju Durairaj

NA fME member Manju Durairaj was born and raised in India. She studied in Pune, India. She was involved in graduate research projects on comparative pedagogical practices of Indian (Carnatic) and Western Music at Middlesex University, London, UK. She graduated with her second master’s degree and K-12 certification from VanderCook College of Music, Chicago. Manju is also certified in Orff-Schulwerk, completing her levels at George Mason University, with master classes at University of St. Thomas, and at the Orff Institute in Salzburg, Austria.

Manju currently teaches Pre K-5 general music at the Latin School of Chicago. She is past president of the Greater Chicago Orff Chapter. She is a SMART certified trainer and customizes these training courses for music educators. She teaches technology (IWB/tablets), movement, and general music teacher training courses at VanderCook College of Music, Chicago. She was on the Diversity Commission of the American Orff Schulwerk Association and is on the Elementary General Music Council of IL Music Education Association. She has presented at ISME, AOSA, OAKE, NAfME, MKMEA, IMEA, ILMEA, WMEA, TMEA and other international and national conferences. She has been published in the Orff Echo, Reverberations, Illinois Music Educators Journal, and the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education. Her publications with Hal Leonard include InterAct with Music Assessment Levels 1 and 2, and Technology in Today’s Music Classroom.


Manju Durairaj presented on her topic “Diversity and Inclusion: Building Empathy in the Music Classroom” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference in November 2016 in Grapevine, TX! Don’t miss out on the NAfME 2018 National Conference. Register today!

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