If the last 18 months has taught us anything, it is that human beings are resilient creatures. We have all been forced to adapt to so much change, deal with grief and loss, and endure many months of solitude with life in lockdown. As an adult, these challenges have been difficult. The one thing we have on our side is insight and life experience. The youth of today do not have this resource, and very young children have spent more months in lockdown than they have in the “normal” world. This means without the emotional intelligence, experience, or life skills to know how to live in such a confined and limiting way. They’ve been robbed of those little joys that we once took for granted. The first step to helping our children to recover is to understand the fundamental issue created by life in lockdown. Once we understand this, we will be in a position to encourage positive change and help our children, not just to “catch up”, but to achieve and sustain a more complete level of health and wellbeing.
The all-important thing is to restore basic health and wellbeing, as that is the foundation, which will not only protect our children from the next virus, but will give them the wherewithal for living their lives to the full.
Play, socialisation and connection are integral to the social and emotional development of children. While parents often take their children to the local playground to play with their friends for entertainment, the physical, social, cognitive and emotional benefits are endless. For so many months, children were confirmed to their homes, unable to partake in play or socialise with friends. For many, connection was limited to immediate family only, which in many cases led to highly stressful living environments, negatively influencing healthy relationship dynamics.
It is hard to imagine that toddlers have spent more than half of their lives in lockdown. They can’t remember a pre-COVID world or understand what life outside of a pandemic looks like. We cannot change the last two years, but we can influence the way in which we come out of the pandemic, and how we support today’s youth in their recovery. And how can they ‘make up for lost time’ and catch up on the curriculum, unless they are healthy, well and mentally capable of immersing themselves back into school? The mental health of children in the UK was already deteriorating prior to the pandemic. Now, it is the worst it’s ever been. One in six school-aged children has a mental health problem. This is an alarming rise from one in ten in 2004 and one in nine in 2017. (NHS Digital, 2020). So the real question should we be focusing on catch-up, or on better supporting their wellbeing, to give them the foundations for doing well academically and in their lives ahead?
The focus should be on the social and emotional foundations on which the academic learning outcomes depend. We cannot simply repurpose past years curricula, because pupil needs have completely changed. There needs to be a far greater focus on social and emotional skill development, and on integrating our children back into a COVID-normal world. Music and music-making can play an enormous part in this, delivering results that are completely out of proportion to its cost and with a relatively low impact on the timetable. And of course health and wellbeing is vitally important for adults too, and participating in the same music activities with the children will deliver exactly the same benefits – so don’t be shy!
Here are three approaches to consider when framing a restorative approach to wellbeing into your school curriculum this year:
1. Music-based games and group activities
The benefits of making music and singing together in a group are endless. Singing improves lung health, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, improves cognitive function, increases empathy and fosters connection. Adding in instrumental music-making, further develops social and emotional skills and improves communication, visual and verbal skills.
Taking this to the next level, add in dance, movement and exercise. This delivers a complete work-out that develops the whole range social, emotional and physical skills. This all-encompassing approach works for any age group from two years up and doesn’t depend on the music or type of movement: it’s the act of participation and playing together with others that delivers the benefits.
Group and whole class music-making, preferably with singing and movement, is far and away the best way to boost social and emotional skills and wellbeing. There’s no better way to spend 40 minutes or an hour and if you can work in a music and movement session once a day, you’ll be well on the way to restoring your children’s health and wellbeing.
2. Encouraging pupils to playing a musical instrument
Playing a musical instrument has tremendous therapeutic benefits. Time and again, science has shown that learning how to play a musical instrument is linked to better learning outcomes in school. It improves brain function and cognitive performance, develops confidence, enhances discipline and it also improves emotional wellbeing and executive function tasks such as processing and retaining information, controlling behaviour, making decisions, and problem solving.
3. Listening to music in a group or individually
Despite having less all round benefits than playing music, listening to music is therapeutic in its own right. It can strengthen learning and memory, increase verbal intelligence, make you happier, promote sleep, and improve heart health by reducing stress, anxiety levels and lowering blood pressure. It can provide an excellent emotional workout and you could, for example, ask your pupils to choose the tracks that have helped them and meant the most to them over the past two years and share the music with the class, and use this as a springboard for discussion.
Music-based games and group activities, playing a musical instrument and listening to music in a group or alone are all super-effective ways of rebuilding and strengthening our children’s physical, emotional and their social connections. Now is the time to focus on supporting children’s underlying health and wellbeing and developing their social and emotional skills, so as to best equip them for success at school and in their lives ahead. Whichever approach, or mix of approaches you use, do try and incorporate at least one into your busy timetable. It will be a wonderful tonic for you too!
Contact Drums for Schools if you’d like to understand how our musical instruments and teaching resources can be applied in your classroom to support your pupil’s mental health and wellbeing.