Music Helps Kids Become More Helpful

Here is yet another confirmation as to the power of music to help kids.

Here are some points of summation from a new article:

Children become 30 times more helpful after making music compared with listening to a story.

Both singing and playing a musical instrument can improve young children’s behavior, according to a recent study.

kids-with-mp3-player2The study found that children who’d been making music were more helpful to each other and had better problem-solving skills than those who’d listened to a story…

Click here for the full article:


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Families & Feelings


Once upon a time, a young girl named Goldilocks went food tasting. She tried Papa Bear’s porridge but it was too hot, and Mama Bear’s which was too cold. When she tasted a spoonful from Baby Bear’s tiny little bowl she cried “YUMMY!” “THIS IS JUST RIGHT!”

file381245784243And so it is with families. The expression of feelings—the “just right” amount—happens to a moderate degree in healthy families. Not too hot, not too cold. It is best to strike a balance between expressing feelings too much or in uncontrolled ways, versus expressing them too little or stuffing them down.

There are a wide range of feelings: positive ones such as love, joy and appreciation, as well as those considered negative such as anger, sadness, fear, grief or embarrassment. They all play an important role. Expressing feelings in constructive ways helps and heals our bodies, relationships, and families.

Here are some principles and tips:

Become the master of your feelings.

There are three components to consider with feelings:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-expression
  3. Communicating to others

Practice awareness.

The first step is to become more aware of what we are feeling moment to moment. Children as young as three years old can learn to recognize and put words to feelings.

Listen to your body.

For example, angry feelings are often stored as tension in the jaw, back, shoulders and/or neck. Sad feelings can settle in our stomach and chest areas. When we are unaware of what we are feeling, when can ask others to give feedback about what they think we might be feeling by how we look.

Take responsibility.

Perhaps one of the best metaphors for holding onto feelings is to think about kitchen garbage. If you let a bunch of chicken bones and soup cans sit around too long without taking the garbage out, things start to stink up a bit. The same can be true with feelings. They need to be attended to.

Heal yourself.

Studies suggest that we heal more rapidly from physical injury and pain when we express ourselves. When people hold feelings inside, they can develop symptoms of depression and low self-esteem. There is also a greater tendency to develop psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches, bed-wetting, gastrointestinal problems, rashes, headaches, etc.

Help your relationships.

When communicated in non-blaming ways, both positive and negative feelings can build greater understanding and intimacy. Holding feelings inside also can lead to passive-aggressive, indirect expressions of those feelings somewhere down the line. Examples of such behavior include withdrawing from others, becoming stubborn, or using teasing or sarcasm.

Don’t lose control with negative feelings.

Some families lose control of emotions or place too much weight on their meaning or importance. Negative feelings in such families are typically expressed in a destructive fashion rather than resolved by good listening or channeled constructively. Not much gets accomplished when there’s emotional chaos and feelings flying all over the place.

Handle anger with care.

Anger can be like fire. When properly contained, fire can cook a meal or warm a room. When out of control, it can burn the house down. Use anger in constructive ways to speak up about your wants and needs, but without hurting others!

Be careful with words.

There’s a common myth that the more feelings you share, the better your marriage or family will be, or the closer you’ll feel. That’s true for positive feelings, but not necessarily for negative ones.  Some people insist “I’m just being honest and saying what I feel—he’s a jerk.” Dumping honest but uncensored feelings on others does not build trust or intimacy.

Express on your own.

When we can release some of our anger when we are alone, its power is usually reduced. Sometimes it even goes away. With less charge it can then be channeled into constructive conversation.

Exercise upset away.

Regular physical exercise also helps reduce anger levels, especially when using the following procedure: Think about an upsetting situation as you exercise aerobically, screaming the words in your head that express what you are feeling and wanting. After that, release the remaining tension with heavy exhalations.

Explore the whole range of feelings.

Sadness, anger, hurt, fear and guilt are some of the primary negative feelings. Do any of these dominate your emotional landscape to the neglect of the others? For example, men can tend to feel too much anger without attending to some of the softer emotions. Conversely, women can get stuck in sadness. Expand your repertoire.

Help others to heal.

Take time to listen to the feelings of your loved ones. When people feel listened to and understood by others, their negative feelings dissipate and can go away. Their brains settle down and now they are ready for clearer connection and decision-making. Tip for parents: Songs and activities to facilitate this process with kids can be found from the link in the closing bio for this article.

Express in a safe place with a safe person.

A useful metaphor is to have your hand on the faucet of your feelings. You want to be able to open the faucet when you choose with a safe person who can support you in your release of feelings. You also want to be able to keep the faucet from flowing with anger or tears when it isn’t the right time or place, such as at work.

Finally, don’t get lost in your emotions.

Feelings shouldn’t be given huge importance or demand our attention all the time. If constructive expression doesn’t work and you find yourself stuck in negative feelings, examine the “story” you are telling yourself. Might it help to think about your upset in a different way?

Remember to laugh.

All feelings—good or bad—can be expressed through laughter. Have you ever laughed so hard you began to cry? Life is serious enough. Lighten up with a laugh.







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Tips to Help Siblings Get Along

Studies suggest that relationships between brothers and sisters are more influential than anyone ever imagined. How we get along with sibs can be as important as how we’ve been parented. This relationship is like the laboratory of how we learn the skills of relating. It’s the template that we carry with us forever.

 Do any of these examples sound familiar?

  • A five-year-old melts down telling his parents to return his baby brother to the hospital. For good.
  • A mom complains that she can’t leave her kids alone in a room for fear that they could hurt each other.
  • A dad realizes that he’s withdrawn from the family because the constant bickering is driving him crazy.

There’s hardly anything more upsetting to parents than seeing their own child hurt by another.  Although sibling rivalry happens in the healthiest of families, the amount of tension is what’s important. Too much conflict can affect self-esteem, friendships, family and parental harmony, and even future marriages. Here are some tips to minimize it:

Discuss sibling rivalry openly and as often as needed.

Let kids know that it’s normal to feel angry and upset, especially when they’re sharing toys and space, and that it’s common to feel jealous when they see a sibling getting attention. Let them know that it’s okay to feel these things and talk about their feelings as they arise. “Mommy, I want some attention too,” works way better than hitting…but,

Don’t tolerate constant complaining.

Sometimes talking about feelings can evolve into a repetitive and ineffective form of being stuck. Teach kids additional tools like taking a deep breath, shifting attention to something else, and substituting a positive thought.

Teach kids to talk feelings out in helpful ways.

Have family meetings to give kids practice at sitting face to face to talk out their upsets in caring, constructive ways. Songs and activities to facilitate this process can be found from the link in the closing bio for this article.

Establish rules for acceptable behavior.

Kids thrive when they know the boundaries and limits. Ask for their help in listing what’s not okay about teasing, yelling, pushing and name-calling. Openly discuss and decide appropriate consequences. Solicit their input to the degree that they can make responsible contributions to the discussion.

Have clear boundaries around personal property and space.

Teach kids to respect each other’s toys, clothing and privacy. It’s okay to spend time by themselves or play with friends without a little brother tagging along.

Find fun ways to hang out together.

Having fun as a family is like making deposits in your relationship bank account. It’s harder to be angry or upset when you’ve just had fun with someone. Use lots of encouragement and praise your kids when you “catch them being good.”

Share your attention equally…

…but don’t get caught in the trap that things always have to be “fair.” Each child has unique needs. It’s classic for kids to be constantly thinking that they’re getting the short end of the stick.

Become aware of any possible favoritism on your part.

Your children may have a personality or interests that bias you toward one versus the other. Or perhaps certain characteristics remind you of someone from your past in a way that may not be helpful. A common example in divorced families is where a child reminds a parent of their “not so beloved” ex.

Model how you want them to be.

Check out the ways that you handle big feelings and conflict, especially with your partner. Remember that kids will more often do what you do rather than what you say. Be a “teaching” as well as a teacher of effective and skillful conflict resolution.

Intervene carefully, and only as needed.

Encourage and coach kids to resolve conflict on their own rather than doing it for them. It’s hugely upsetting to see your kids fighting, but make sure not to yell or lecture— adding fuel to the fire with your own tension. Try to find compromises and win-win solutions.

Give kids time apart from each other and the family.

Sometimes a little space goes a long way toward greater harmony. Arrange separate play dates or activities for each child and then have some quality alone time with the other.

Create one-on-one time with each child.

Even if it’s just ten to fifteen minutes a day, having time with each child, individually, can really help. Within reason, let them choose how they want to spend that time.

Don’t compare or typecast your kids.

A twenty-five year old client recently complained about feeling unworthy of her boyfriend’s attention. She didn’t feel really loveable because she wasn’t good-looking enough. As it turned out, her sister had been labeled the “pretty one.” Similarly, seemingly harmless labels like “Chelsea is the smart one; Sawyer is the athlete” can affect self-image in unexpected ways.

 Encourage teamwork.

Help kids to work together toward certain goals, like doing a chore. Try having an empty jelly jar to place marbles when you notice acts of cooperation or resolving conflicts peacefully. Let them know that you’ll spend extra fun time with both of them when they’ve earned a certain number of marbles.

Remember that this is the laboratory of life.

Perhaps you didn’t think you signed up for this job, but see yourself as a coach of social and emotional skills. Just like learning how to read, kids also need relationship skills that will serve them for life — like how to manage big feelings, appreciate another’s point of view, and learn to compromise and negotiate. See conflict as an opportunity for tune-ups and to teach these important lessons.

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The Gift of Giving

A mother came in with her four-year-old son the other day, saying that he was showing outbursts of anger toward his baby brother. The mom was pretty frightened by the situation and asked for some tips on how to handle things.

For one, it’s really important for kids to understand that their feelings of jealousy are really normal,- that it’s okay to feel sad or mad when he sees his baby brother getting mommy or daddy’s attention.  I can’t tell you how many young kids struggle with their feelings of guilt about wanting to get rid of the new baby. One child told his parents that he wished to have his baby brother returned to the hospital. “Now, thank you very much!”

If you haven’t done so already, read books to your son that can help him understand his feelings. There are some excellent books on this subject. One of our favorites is The New Baby by Mr. Rogers. 

Another excellent strategy is for kids to learn about the concept of love and giving in families. If you share a cookie with someone, the more they get, the less you receive. But certain things like love, the flame of a candle, or even a good idea are different. If I share an idea with you, I still have the idea and you have it too. It’s grown!

The song “The Gift of Giving” drives this idea home in a way that kids as young as four years old can appreciate. It can be found on the home page of, and uses the metaphor of kids sharing candlelight. Try saying to your kids “When Mommy shares some of her love with daddy, it helps her to have even more love in her heart to share with you.” It is surprising how young kids can begin to learn this concept, especially if given the chance to learn it through music.

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Using Music as a Teaching Tool for Kids

I was interviewed by Psych. Central about the effectiveness of songs for helping kids build character and social and emotional skills. The article includes a summary of our research project in the Santa Barbara Public Schools.

Here’s a link to the article about our efforts:



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“The Repair Kit” for Conflict Resolution

“The Repair Kit” is equally helpful with adults and kids alike. It’s a process for people to handle and express feelings in a way that leaves them feeling better at the conclusion of a conversation instead of worse, which is so often the case. Feeling “understood” by another is the fastest path to settling the “emotional brain” and letting things go.

Couples can use this technique to practice new skills for both talking and listening, and can then become effective at coaching their kids in the process. For kids, the song that is the companion to this process is called “Talk It Out” and can be found in the Talking & Listening album.

Here’s the drill: Person #1 starts as the speaker, and person #2 as the listener, and they are positioned to sit face-to-face so knees are almost touching. Deep breaths are suggested to help the listener from becoming anxious or defensive. If everyone can agree Person #1 shares with person #2 each of the following:

1. A genuine appreciation toward the other.

2. Something he or she is upset about.

Example: “It made me mad when you teased me about my shirt today.”

“I didn’t like it when….” Or “I don’t like it when…”

3. A wish or a want that would help fix the thing they are upset about.

Example: “I want you to be nice to me and not tease.”

After sharing one way, the flow reverses so that person #1 becomes the listener and person #2 becomes the speaker. Participants should also pause to take deep breaths while reversing roles. Breathing consciously is one of the fastest and most effective de-stressors available… Kids Eps FAQs

“The Repair Kit” can be used effectively with kids as young as five or six. When you first introduce the exercise, you may want to share that Mom and Dad have been trying something new that is helping them get along better. First practice this tool with kids as part of a family meeting, when things are going well. Explain that, “We know that broken things such as a flat tire need repair. We also have learned that when people aren’t acting in caring ways toward each other something needs fixing.” Model how to do it and then have each one build their skills by initially “pretending” to be upset with the other about something.

Since one of the most common complaints that parents have is the constant bickering between their kids, we provide this communication kit to lots of families. Once learned, this tool can be used as frequently as needed to help things run more smoothly when kids keep getting in conflict. It’s likely that you’ll need to mediate or coach the kids even after the process is learned.

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Research on Songs and Activities for Children’s Social and Emotional Learning

Children today are experiencing levels of stress like never before, and what they see and hear is forming new connections in their rapidly growing brains. Music has been shown to be an effective means of enhancing learning and retention (Sacks, 2007). (Isn’t it how you still remember your ABCs?) Most people can remember the words and meanings of songs they haven’t heard for years, perhaps because music lights up a such a variety of brain centers, including language, hearing, and rhythmic motor control (Pinker 1997.) A growing body of research points to the importance of teaching social and emotional skills to young children, and to use songs and related activities as a means to this end.

The February 2011 journal of Child Development had an article entitled “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions.” The authors provide a meta-analysis of 213 school-based, social and emotional learning (SEL) programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students. Compared to controls, SEL participants showed significant improvements in social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behavior. Not surprisingly, there was also an average 11-percentile-point gain in academic achievement.

Similar to these results, a research project in the Santa Barbara and Goleta, California schools studied the effects of songs and related activities on children’s social and emotional skills. Using songs from Kids’ EPs, 320 first and second grade children from sixteen classrooms were involved. The children each received a CD, and in a subsequent condition, college students were trained to provide forty-minute lessons using songs and activities on nine Friday afternoons.

The lessons included themes of:

1. Friendship and Reaching Out
2. Respect and Caring
3. Celebrating Differences
4. Expressing and Managing Feelings
5. Communication and Conflict
6. Positive Thinking
7. Dealing with Fears
8. Best Effort
9. Manners and Review

In order to study the impact of the interventions, teachers filled out standardized BESS (Behavioral and Emotional Screening System) tests on each child four times over the course of the year. They also provided repeated assessments of their classroom in general. The school principals, college students, and parents of the children also provided feedback about their respective experiences with the program.

Significant changes occurred in the children, both under the conditions of having the CD alone, and also by participating in the school lessons. Some of the most significant improvements for both first and second graders were in “encouraging others to do their best,” as well as following rules in the group. There were also positive changes with confidence.

First graders showed more dramatic changes than second graders, learning skills in approaching peers, using effective tools with teasing and bullying, understanding and using the Golden Rule, resolving conflicts by talking out feelings, staying on task, having a positive attitude, and applying concepts learned from Kids’ EPs to every day situations. Parents were enthusiastic, reporting that the project prompted meaningful and helpful family discussions. The college student “teachers” also made significant gains in their own social and emotional skills.

Brain researchers note that music activates neural systems of reward and emotion similar to those stimulated by food, sex and drugs (Blood and Zatorre, 2001). Music “tickles” the brain in a highly pleasurable way. It releases endorphins that provide feelings of happiness and energy. A fun way to “make the medicine go down,” kids welcome tools to better handle their feelings, relationships, and practice positive thinking. Anthropologists point out that all cultures embrace music in a variety of forms, and it’s the only thing that, worldwide, people spend more on than prescription drugs!

Despite mounting evidence that supports the benefits of social and emotional learning, schools are still prone to focus on academics through testing and drill. The studies cited here demonstrate that even when time is taken away from the traditional “Three Rs” to focus on SEL, academic scores improve. Perhaps a fitting analogy is that of computer memory. When children are preoccupied, they have far less “memory” or attention available for cognitive inputs. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for a child who has just been teased on the playground to pay attention in class. Little brains are often too easily “hijacked” by their amygdalas. No surprise, it seems that happy kids learn better!


Blood, A. and Zatorre, R. (2001) Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 98, 11818-11823.

Durlak, J., Weissberg, R., Dymnicki, A., Taylor, R., Schellinger, K. (2011) The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions, Child Development, 82, 405-432.

Pinker, Steven (1997) How the Mind Works, New York: Norton.

Sacks, Oliver. (2007) Musicophilia, New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Don R. MacMannis, Ph.D. has been a psychologist and Co-director of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara for the past thirty years. He is the co-author of How’s Your Family Really Doing?: 10 Keys to a Happy Loving Family. Also a PBS songwriter, he has written and produced Kids’ EPs, a series of award-winning songs and activity books for social and emotional learning. Emails may be sent to and his website is at

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Top 10 Tips for Surviving Family Vacations




Now that school’s out, everyone wants to play and go on vacation. Having a flashlight and flares for a car trip is a great idea. So is a travel bag of games, songs and activities.

But what about a repair kit for family feelings? Or a road map to harmony? Even a dream vacation in an idyllic setting can become a nightmare if the kids are at each other’s throats. Here are some practical parenting tools to help bring out the best in everybody:

  1. Remember the big picture. A family vacation can be a perfect opportunity to create fun and lasting memories. Consider making learning, loving and living in the moment your highest priority, rather than getting to a particular destination.
  2. Share appreciations and praise. Families do best when everybody (including adults) feels appreciated. Notice the good things and praise your kids, aiming for at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative statements.
  3. Don’t relax the rules and routines too much. Younger children can’t “sleep in,” so later or irregular bedtimes can create sleep deprivation and irritability. Kids thrive when parents provide lots of love and warmth, but also firmness and structure.
  4. Give lots of time to blow off steam. Being away can be exciting but also stressful. Join in and help your children express themselves physically and emotionally through exercise and activities.
  5. Provide practice at making decisions. If done in moderation, handing over some decisions to the kids is a terrific way for them to learn planning and thinking skills. Going somewhere new puts everybody on an exciting, equal footing.
  6. Have family meetings. This is an ideal way to air feelings, make group decisions and help everyone feel respected for their preferences. Don’t forget that you’re all in the same boat. When tensions flare, it’s time to attend. If siblings aren’t getting along, a good “repair kit” is to have them work things out by sitting face to face, listening to and acknowledging each other’s feelings.
  7. Honor individual differences. Travel often highlights some differences between family members: preferences around food, activities, how much time to be active vs. relaxing, etc. It’s a fabulous time to learn to compromise and take turns leading and following. Some kids get homesick and may act younger and need more loving attention.
  8. Be prepared for idle times. In addition to the travel bag of positive family games, coloring and activity pages, have some games to use when you’re waiting or standing on lines (e.g., guessing which hand a coin is in). It’s also fun to let the kids safely scout out new places and come back to give you a report.
  9. Allow some down time.  Families are often not accustomed to being together all the time. Allow some ebbs and flows of being together and apart, and of quiet and more active times.
  10. Listen to your own needs. Create time to be apart from the children and nurture yourself and your adult relationships. It’s a win-win situation. One of the greatest gifts you can offer your children is your own sense of happiness and well being.

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Music as Medicine!

Music has an almost magical capacity to touch our souls and elicit strong feelings. For adults, an old tune or two can trigger a walk down memory lane. It can be used for clients needing to grieve the loss of a loved one. For teens in therapy, asking them about their favorite songs and artists can help them feel connected to the therapist, and also elicit a whole host of discussions about their inner lives, hopes and dreams.

Music lights up over a dozen areas of our brain, including language, hearing and motor control centers. Cutting across a number of the “seven intelligences,” it helps to ground concepts in a unique and special way. It can increase the production of endorphins, help us feel energized, lift our moods, and connect us with others. It has been shown to boost creativity, self-expression, and even immune function.

Research has also shown that music can strengthen learning processes, particularly with vocabulary and spatial-temporal reasoning. It has long-lasting effects for retaining information. Many of us still remember the words and meanings of songs we haven’t heard for years, and it’s how we recall our ABCs. 

When penicillin was discovered, it was widely publicized and used to treat infection. A different kind of “infection” exists today. Parents and teachers nationwide are overwhelmed with the challenge of young children being rude, irresponsible, teased, bullied, shy or unable to tolerate frustration! The medicine or solutions for these problems has also been “discovered” but not yet applied…it is the teaching of social and emotional skills.

In the home, parents know the importance of teaching these skills, but complain that they don’t have the tools. In the classroom, the latest research provides solid evidence for the importance of teaching children these skills, yet most schools only support an emphasis on academics.

We are putting the cart before the horse when we only focus on academics and ignore what else is happening in kids’ lives. A child who has just been teased out in the playground has very little attention left for the math problem being presented on the blackboard. When children are preoccupied, they have far less “memory” or attention available for learning. They are at high risk for later problems in school and in the workplace in their adult lives.

There is a fun and almost magical way to help them… with the songs and activities of Kids EPs! These songs, as with all music, light up the brain in at least a dozen different centers, engaging children in a way that helps them to learn the most important lessons in life, – how to get along better in the world and bring out the best in others. And as far as the academics are concerned? Happy kids learn better!

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  • Dr. Mac is a child psychologist, school consultant, lecturer, award-winning songwriter, and writer and director of music for the PBS hit, Jay Jay the Jet Plane.

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