Q & A’s

KIDS EPs Q & A’s

Dr. Mac is an award-winning songwriter, child psychologist, teacher and school consultant who understands what kids want and need to be happy. His latest music CD, Kids EPs, Volume 3, includes fun-filled, upbeat songs and activities that provide a unique and effective way to boost all-important Social and Emotional Skills (SEL) among children ages 4-9.

Q. You’ve talked in the past about the gap between Raffi and rap. What do you mean by that?

When I talk to kindergarten through third graders and ask them what music they like, they invariably name the music their older brothers and sisters listen to – music by artists like Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and a variety of rap artists. Even kids without older siblings are musically sophisticated these days and really attracted to the quality and rhythm of adult music. They’re no longer interested in preschool music, but most of the lyrics in teen and adult music are inappropriate. They need a sound of their own. Kids EPs helps fill that gap.

Q: Your songs focus strongly on social and emotional themes. Do parents have to worry that the songs will be too depressing or too grown-up for their kids?

Absolutely not! To start with, my songs are upbeat and represent a variety of musical genres. But beyond that – and this is the point we simply cannot afford to overlook – today’s kids are way too smart for songs without substance. Today’s kids are struggling to face the demands of stressful and fast-paced times, times that are far more stressful and fast-paced than any their parents ever experienced, and they need ways to feel good about themselves and get along with others.

As a child psychologist, teacher, and school consultant, I have an insider’s advantage when it comes to understanding what kids want and need to be happy, and I’ve made sure to include those themes and lessons in my music. These songs have kids learning about tough topics – things like conflict resolution, positive thinking, overcoming fears and shyness, communication, respect for differences, expressing feelings and honesty – in a way that’s fun and inspires singing along, and is never preachy or empty.

Q: Why do you think it’s so important to teach children about social and emotional skills instead of just dealing with academic challenges?

To put it quite simply, happy kids learn better! The latest trend is for schools to focus on academics through testing and drill. But hundreds of studies show that even when time is taken away from the traditional “Three Rs” for programs to help children with their social and emotional concerns, academic scores improve.

I love to use the analogy of computer memory. When children are preoccupied, they have far less “memory” or attention available for learning. Imagine a kid who has just been teased on the playground. Now think about how well that child will be able to pay attention to the arithmetic problems the teacher’s putting up on the blackboard!

Q: Teachers are so busy. How can they effectively teach character education with ever-diminishing resources and time?

The songs can initially be played during non-structured times or art classes to “seed” the concepts. Teachers have been amazed by how quickly kids memorize the words and meanings of the songs, even without a focus on the lessons. It helps to give kids these tools in a preventive fashion, also providing a positive and more productive classroom atmosphere. That’s why the CDs are so helpful.

Other teachers integrate the activities and concepts across the curriculum, providing a better chance for kids to understand and retain the skills. Many choose a song of the week to learn the words and music. Teachers lament that they haven’t received enough training to deal with the social and emotional challenges of their students. Yet it’s what they are forced to spend a lot of time on.

Q: Why do you include such a variety of music styles?

To hold people’s attention and keep things exciting. Different styles of music also lend themselves nicely to the portrayal of different social and emotional themes. For example, rap music lends itself nicely to communication issues.

As a side benefit, children have the opportunity to learn about different kinds of music, as well as to identify the instruments that are featured, particularly from the instrumental solos.

Q: Where do you get your song ideas for Kids EPs?

Songs are usually inspired by my contact with kids, parents and teachers. Many have asked for a song to help kids with bullying. Other songs help kids deal with shyness, reach out, take responsibility and clean up. After a kid told me about being teased for having facial “tics,” I wrote a song to normalize people’s differences and idiosyncrasies. It’s a zany one called “Quirks.” I get other song ideas from other psychologists and the research that I read.

Q: Why do you use a mix of adult and child singers?

The variety helps capture and hold kids’ attention. Most of all, children love to hear other kids sing and these songs are filled with their voices. They also like the variety of adult soloists, different styles of songs, and the full-production sound. Parents and teachers love it, too!

The children who are soloists, rappers, talkers, and in the chorus were recruited from local Santa Barbara talent. For the last CD, I selected 12 out of almost 100 who auditioned. Most of the kids are also actors who have been leads in plays so they are quite accomplished at a young age. The other singers on the CD—the adult soloists and background singers—are some of the best available.

Q. Do we know that programs incorporating elements of Social and Emotional Learning really work?

Teachers have always understood that music makes kids happy, and that happy kids learn and behave better, but now we have proof. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (www.casel.org), a Chicago-based group dedicated to studying the effect of SEL among students ages 5-19, in December 2007 announced the results of a five-year study of more than 700 SEL programs in urban, suburban, and rural elementary and secondary schools.

The results were astounding! Compared to students who did not experience SEL programming, students who did showed significant improvement in social and emotional skills; attitudes about themselves, others and school; social and classroom behavior; conduct problems such as classroom misbehavior and aggression; emotional distress such as stress and depression; and achievement test scores and school grades.

We also know that music is an almost magical medium for teaching skills. Most of us have experienced music’s long-lasting effects for learning and retaining information – isn’t it how you still remember your ABCs? We can remember the words and meanings of songs we haven’t heard for years, perhaps because the words and meanings hit so many different centers: language, hearing, and rhythmic motor control.

Brain researchers also note that music activates neural systems of reward and emotion similar to those stimulated by food, sex and drugs. Music “tickles” the brain in a highly pleasurable way. It is not seen as “necessary” for human survival, yet something inside us craves it. It releases endorphins that provide feelings of happiness and energy. Anthropologists point out that all cultures embrace music in a variety of forms, and it’s the only thing that, worldwide, we spend more on than prescription drugs!

Q: Is it important for adults to like the music their children are listening to?

Yes, because for better or worse, young children typically like to hear songs over and over again. To provide lasting value, Kids EPs is designed to befun and interesting for teachers and parents as well.