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In Houseboat Chronicles, Jake MacDonald describes how, back in the early 1960s, his sixth-grade class was made to listen to Miss Roma Harpell on the radio, taking them on an imaginative journey intended to get them calmly focused and alert:

Now children, put your heads down on your desks and close your eyes. That’s right, nice and tight! Now just be very quiet… and dream that we’re drifting in the vast darkness of space. Look at that lovely blue planet over there! How pretty it is! Look at the many green continents, so magical and different! What faraway lands will you visit today?

Somewhere behind me a yardstick whacks a desk. “Close your eyes!” bellows Sister George.

It’s the same battle in every art class. The girls close their eyes. The boys refuse. We cooperate to the extent of laying our heads on our arms, but closing your eyes is for sissies. If Sister George prowls past, I scrunch my eyes shut, but open them again as soon as she’s past.

Miss Harpell (who later went on to Romper Room fame) had an exceptionally soothing voice, and the thinking behind the program was certainly sound (Autogenic training); yet it is easy to see how the experience would have best served those students who didn’t need it, while those who might have benefited most were unwilling or unable to engage.

Indeed, this sort of exercise in “creative visualization” can produce the exact opposite effect from what is intended, for all sorts of reasons. It might be that the child is simply too hyperaroused, or doesn’t have the body awareness needed to sit still, or becomes flooded with negative thoughts when he tries to imagine himself “drifting through space,” or simply isn’t developmentally ready to participate in this form of group activity. And I suspect that what was a trial for Sister George back in the early 1960s is becoming something of a nightmare for far too many teachers struggling to deal with a generation of children whose issues extend far beyond the “not wanting to appear like a sissy” in front of the other kids.

But there’s still a deeper message here. According to the National Broadcasting Act, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is supposed to “contribute to a shared national consciousness and identity.” It’s so easy to slip from this mandate into thinking that the same program will have the same effect whatever the demographic. Maybe they got a positive response when they tested the broadcast on a focus group at CBC headquarters and immediately took the program into syndication. But what plays out well on Front Street in downtown Toronto might not have nearly the same result on Front Street in Grenfell, Saskatchewan.

In fact, if you read elsewhere in Houseboat Chronicles and you’ll see how the same little boys were, in fact, able to become calmly focused and alert when they hunted for small animals in the bush in Lake of the Woods. A point that is just as true for children growing up in Parry Sound when the Seguin River freezes over; or children in Behchoko when the community gathers for handgames; or kids in Cape Breton when they attend a milling frolic. So does it even make sense to look for some sort of universal “calming” technique that we could introduce into classrooms across the country: something that all children will enjoy and not just tolerate?

Watching my daughter’s school Christmas pageant this year, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there is, in fact, a positive answer to this question, and that it lies in what Longfellow called “the universal language of mankind.” But in Self-Reg we aren’t so much interested in the poetic as the scientific reasons as to when and why something might have a regulating effect on a child’s arousal. And in the case of music, we have a rich body of research to draw on.

The rigorous studies looking at the effect of music in neonatal intensive care units is an important case in point. The NICU is typically an extremely stressful environment, with all sorts of noise, alarms constantly going off, medical staff frantically rushing about, not to mention the stress of being isolated in an incubator or suffering repeated invasive procedures. In this case, scientists are able to assess the effect of music therapy by looking at the baby’s heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation. All of these vital signs improve substantially as a result of exposure to music, and not surprisingly, there is a significant reduction in inconsolable crying, better feeding and consequent weight gain, and shortened hospital stays. Cortisol measurements and the Preterm Infant Behavior Assessment confirm that (tempered) exposure to music significantly reduces the baby’s level of arousal.

But then the question is: What sorts of music? A couple of features stand out: the music has to be simple, slow, and soothing, with highly repetitive and predictable phrases. But what is perhaps most interesting is that maternal singing has a greater effect than recorded music. This is thought to be a result of the fact that hearing develops in utero, and that the foetus learns to identify her mother’s (and slightly later, father’s) voice by its rhythm and melodic contour. As Helen Shoemark puts it, the caregiver’s voice serves as a “key stimulus for the infant’s sense of safety and well-being.” This is because the newborn “recognizes” her mother and father by the subtle musical qualities of their voices, which acts as a magnet, drawing the baby into the Interbrain (Michael Jr.).

It is clearly no accident that the manner in which caregivers around the world talk or sing to their babies picks up on these subtle musical qualities. In virtually all cultures, we see rising melodic contours used to engage interest and descending melodic contours to calm. Lullabies invariably have a narrow pitch range and employ repetitive sounds and rhythms, often accompanied by rhythmic movements (rocking, swaying). These unconscious behaviours reduce the baby’s sympathetic arousal and facilitate her ability to recognize patterns, which will become increasingly complex as more and more behavioural elements and emotional textures are incorporated.

But what is perhaps most remarkable of all is how babies not only detect but actually imitate these melodic patterns: how “singing comes before speech.” (see Jonathan Friedmann’s Thinking on Music and Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind and body.) This suggests that early language isn’t simply a cognitive phenomenon (processing different kinds of patterns) and a social/communicative act (“learning how to do things with words”) but is also a method of self-soothing; for by rehearsing the melodic sounds that she hears, the infant is replicating and recreating those stress-reducing effects that she experiences when her caregivers sing/speak to her, as much a physiological response as a consequence of associations that have already formed.

The natural question this raises for us is whether there is any reason to suppose that these discoveries about the powerful effect of music on the autonomic nervous system apply to the classroom. There is an interesting debate going on at the moment in Portal Plus as to the effects of background music on the classroom. Like others in the forum, I find this a distraction rather than calming, and children appear to be equally variable in their reactions. But rather than looking at this issue in terms of the third step of Self-Reg – i.e., as some sort of “environmental fix” to reduce classroom stress – it might be productive to look at it in terms of the fifth stage of Self-Reg: i.e., as one of our “self-regulating” strategies, as dictated by the signs of escalating arousal rather than a pre-fixed timetable.

I am not referring here to the ongoing and extremely important debate about the benefits of music education, but rather, the benefits of musical experience, both passive and active. I could not just see but actually feel the regulating effect of the music at my daughter’s Christmas pageant. If the kids were in a state of joy, so were their parents, and this wasn’t simply a result of seeing their kids so happy.

Documenting both the up-regulating and down-regulating effects of listening to music has proven to be exceptionally difficult, but it is now clear that certain identifiable musical structures and genres have a distinctly stimulating or calming effect. To be sure, this is something that all of us who use music to regulate our mood already know. But what is especially interesting is the research showing why active musical experience in particular is an important tool for self-regulation.

Far from keeping a constant rhythm, our heart rate is constantly accelerating and decelerating, a fluctuation known as Heart Rate Variability. Under heightened stress the “deceleration” mechanisms are attenuated and HRV diminishes: e.g., heart rate tends to stay high, even while at rest, and parasympathetic functioning is suppressed. But through deliberately slow breathing, we are able to “entrain” heart rate. The physiological effect of synchronizing heart rate with breathing-rate is that “rest-and-digest” functions are enhanced, which results in the subjective feeling of being “soothed”.

This is a key reason why so many benefit from yoga or meditation. Yet there are those who not only obtain no benefit at all from these practices, but even find them aversive (what is intended to benefit self-regulation ends up a draining and self-defeating battle of effortful control). Yet there are other types of activity that have the same entrainment effect, for the same reason. For example, Luciano Bernardi showed that saying the Rosary is no less effective at modulating heart rate, as indeed is any form of singing that demands slower than normal respiration. Choral singing in particular has been shown to have a powerful effect: physiological, emotional, social and even prosocial. The members of the choir enter into a shared arousal state, in part because of their common breathing rate, in part because of shared attention, in part because opioids and dopamine are released, and possibly because oxytocin (which promotes affiliative behaviour) is produced. What’s more, the human voice communicates the individual’s physiological state, which would further account for the effect that the members of my daughter’s school choir were having on each other and on their parents.

It’s a crucial point as far as instituting group self-regulating practices in a classroom setting is concerned. If the state we’re after is for the entire class to become calmly focused and alert, then the last way to go about this is to have the teacher patrolling up and down the aisles armed with a yardstick. Indeed, for any self-regulating practice to be effective, it has to be something that the teacher enjoys as much as the students. But what works best has to be something that the individual class figures out, not a scientist and not a civil servant. And if they do decide on music, they have to decide on what and when and how and how often.

One of the schools I visited in Western Australia had come up with an ingenious approach to this issue. The school would embark on various “competitions” every week – academic, prosocial, artistic — and the winning class got to choose the music that would be played over the loudspeakers the following week to signal class transitions. It was here that I was introduced to the music of Chooka Parker: a real-life lesson in the incredible impact music can have, not just on a young boy growing up in rural Victoria, but on all the kids in that school, and maybe even an entire nation (Chooka Parker).

That’s the real lesson of Self-Reg: whatever we choose for our classroom self-regulating activities, it has to be something that is calming and culturally relevant and even inspiring. And it has to be woven seamlessly into the fabric of the day and not relegated to some designated “period.” If not, we’ll end up just repeating all the same mistakes from the past.

Dr. Stuart Shanker is the Founder and CEO of The MEHRIT Centre.  You can read all the posts in his “Self-Reg View of” series here

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