School readiness is a challenging area in education, particularly for less advantaged children who have not had the opportunity to attend preschool. This podcast episode is all about one teacher’s experience of running an 8-week music program specifically to help kids get ready for Kinder.
You can listen to it above, listen to it on iTunes or read the transcript below. And don’t forget to scroll down to download the free pdf Allison created for us for when we want to try and introduce our own music classes for school readiness!
Welcome, it’s great to have you here. I’m Liz and I’m the host of The Early Childhood Research Podcast. This is episode 4 and today I’m speaking to teacher and researcher, Allison Cameron, about using music to help prepare children for school. Allison has been teaching music for many years but she also specialised in learning difficulties through her Masters degree and she’s currently working on her PhD at the Early Start Research Institute based at the University of Wollongong in Australia.
During the last school term of 2014 Allison was asked to run a school readiness program by a Community Centre that was preparing their children for Kindergarten, and these children had never attended preschool so there was some concern about how well they would be able to adapt and be ready for making friends and learning.
School Readiness Through Music
Allison Cameron, welcome to The Early Childhood Research Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today.
It’s no problem, it’s my pleasure!
This programme was all about school readiness and I know you wanted to put an emphasis on social skills. What social skills did you choose to emphasize?
What social and executive function skills are important for school readiness?
Patience and Taking Turns
Being able to wait for your turn to speak is really important in the classroom, but it’s also important in order to become a good friend, that you can listen to your friend and not talk over the top of them all the time, which is really important in the playground as well as in the classroom.
But the other sorts of things that I would be looking at would be not just taking turns with speaking but taking turns with the equipment. Obviously when I started the classes I made sure that every child got a turn, but gradually I lessened that because being able to cope with the disappointment of not always getting a turn is really important. But it was those sorts of things that I was thinking about.
It’s also an important part of delaying gratification. For example, in the classroom you don’t get to tell your news every day but you know that on Thursdays it’s going to be your day.
These are really important skills for children because it actually helps them in their learning and helps them to be a really valued member of the class.
The other things that overlap with social skills are executive function skills, which are things like self-regulation, being able to plan and understand the concept of planning from the teacher’s instructions.
Inhibition control. So knowing when to stop, when to start and working memory skills. I was thinking about being able to follow through with a series of instructions. To listen to those instructions, take them on board and then act on them, because often those children who are able to master those skills very quickly learn more because they actually spend more time on tasks in the classroom.
Children who struggle with those things often spend a lot of time going back to the teacher saying, “what are we meant to be doing?” And then they’ll get lost on the way to the book they need. Children actually need lots of opportunities to practice those skills because that’s how they learn.
And then I guess the other thing I was thinking about was extending their concentration. In the Kindergarten classroom 45 minutes is a really long time so having lots of short activities that I gradually extended over time I was just looking at stretching them just that little bit so that they could stay with me on the activity that we were doing and finish that one. Because that’s really important, too, for children’s sense of accomplishment to be able to stick with a task and finish it.
Even though we were doing this in a very supported environment they’re really practical skills that children can take everywhere with them, not just in the classroom.
Why choose music?
You’ve got all these great skills that the kids need to use and that was obviously your focus for the programme. Besides the fact that you’re a music teacher, why choose music to develop these skills?
Music’s innately human, and you might hear someone say, “I don’t like country music,” but it would be a really unusual person that said that they didn’t like music at all. Most children engage very well with music so there’s a whole lot of things. It’s fun! So they’re likely to want to take part in it. There’s lots of short activities so children get lots of opportunities to practice transitions which are often very difficult.
If there’s one activity that they don’t really enjoy they’re not going to have to do it for a long time. They’re going to be going on to something else that they’ll probably enjoy more.
The other thing is that movement is really important in music so that’s great for children who have trouble sitting still.
Also, because we used instruments in the program, that poses really great challenges for children. Learning not to get too over-excited and to look after the instrument. And learning to stop and start at the same time, that’s a fabulous things because they get really excited and happy when they do it well. It’s very immediate, that sense of, “yes, we did it.” They loved that we did it as a group, it’s very, very satisfying.
I guess the other two things were that music classes are really teacher centred and so very much focused on the teacher. Listening really carefully and then acting on that. And then the final thing would be that the Schools as Community Centre’s Facilitator actually requested music because music had benefited one of her children who had had a disability and so she didn’t need any convincing.
How many children were involved.
We had 8 children in the programme. Occasionally we had a couple of extras that turned up. Of that 8 we had 6 regular participants.
And were the parents in the classroom with you?
The parents were up the other end of the rooms so the children could go up and touch base with them if they wanted to. I think the parents were actually just enjoying the opportunity to sit and chat with other parents so it was a little bit of relaxation time for them. But for a child who wasn’t used to being separated from their parent it was great because they could just go back and touch base with them and then come back. But gradually I noticed that they did that less and less because they were used to me and they were used to the routine of the class.
So that would be preparing them for school as well, that separation.
It’s a really nice, gentle way for those children to know that their parent’s there but realise that they don’t need them and that they can manage.
And good for their parent’s confidence as well.
Yes, that’s exactly right… very important!
Did you have any particular types of activities or procedures that seemed more effective than others in terms of getting them ready for school?
I couldn’t say that it was one particular thing. It was the combination of things and the fact that I had a very strong sense of routine in the lesson so they very quickly learned we start with a welcoming song, then we do our activities that are focused on beat. We had our drum songs we had particular musical games that we always played. We had particular language and rhyming activities that we do, so they were really familiar with the routine, and most Kindergarten teachers are very big on routine.
We often forget that young children needs lots of opportunities to practice their skills and what might seem too many repetitions for an adult is actually perfect for a child. We can think it’s a bit boring. It’s not boring for a child, it’s learning for a child.
These children are at such a disadvantage compared to other children who might have been in preschool for years and they’ve had all this time to practice all these skills.
If they haven’t practiced them hundreds, they might have practiced them thousands of times and that makes a really big difference. Often in the classroom it’s the children who struggle with those organisational, social things that happen in the classroom that prevent them from learning and being the best that they can be.
What should we have in a music program?
Lots of parents put their children in music and dance classes when they’re small but they can be expensive and out of reach of many. If a group of parents or a community playgroup want to introduce music to help their kids get ready for school, what kind of equipment would they need?
Because everything’s electronic or digital we tend to think we need lots of equipment. But to do music the most important instrument you have is your voice. And your body is also an instrument for body percussion. So you don’t necessarily have to buy resources.
There’s probably a number of components in running a simple music activity, like having a regular Good Morning song or a Greeting song. While you sing the song you’re tapping the beat. And while you’re tapping the beat, then we can invite children to figure out, “where would you like to tap the beat?” “Would you like to tap your head, or would you like to tap your shoulders?”
And if you have a group of children, maybe 8 or 9 children, you can actually do that relatively quickly with a short song and every child can get a turn. And that means that every child has had 9 opportunities to practice tapping the beat.
Then you can do something like walking the beat to chant a nursery rhyme to. You can set them a challenge. “Do you think we could do it fast? Let’s pretend to do little mouse steps and do it fast.” Or, “can we do big elephant steps and do it slowly?” Slow is really hard for children so I usually do fast before I do slow and I probably think that the parents would agree that their children are very good at fast and not as good at slow.
I always include some nursery rhymes and finger rhymes because there’s a really big crossover between language and music. Nursery rhymes like Humpty Dumpty, Twinkle Twinkle, Incy Wincy, kids don’t get sick of those and they’ll often request their favourites.
With nursery rhymes I have images on card. I might have a picture of Humpty Dumpty on a card and we talk about it and we say, “what rhyme might this one be?” So we’re also introducing an early literacy activity there.
If you don’t have money for musical instruments you can make them. It’s quite easy to find online resources for making a drum or for making a shaker. But if you do have some money for instruments then you can buy a little pair of egg shakers, they’re about $4 a pair, they’re durable and they’ve got many, many uses.
Rhythm sticks are also really good. They’re not expensive and they’ve got lots of uses, and they’re relatively safe. Little things like hand bells. Tambourines I wouldn’t recommend quite as much, even though they’re lovely, but in a playgroup setting they’re likely to get damaged when someone puts their hand through it!
Things that are pretty indestructable, that can take a lot of use are money well spent.
My preference with nursery rhymes is not to use CDs because often we’re really afraid of singing. Recordings sound lovely but they’re a bit too busy for children to take in all of the information that we would ideally like them to get from nursery rhymes.
I’ve got a little handout there with some information about the particular things that I like and things that I find really good.
A really simple game you can play with children is called, “The Children Are Going to Sleep.”
Usually I would get the children to sleep first by singing:
The children are going to sleep
The children are going to sleep
The children are going to sleep.
Then they’ll lie down and go to sleep and I’ll get a musical instrument. And while they’re lying there all of a sudden I’ll start playing the instrument and wake them up and say, “wake up, wake up,” and then each child gets a turn. They absolutely love it, but it’s a great way to get them to self-regulate.
They’ll have a child that cannot sit still, he’ll happily lie down and pretend to go to sleep and because it’s a very short period, and they get woken up. Sometimes, for some children, you might need to sing the song really quickly so they can be successful in staying asleep until they’re woken up. It’s a fabulous little thing to do just from the point of taking turns. “It’s not your turn yet, but Rebecca’s going to have a turn and then it will be your turn.”
Seeing the instrument and the structure of the song really helps children to go, “oh, OK, I see how that works, it will be my turn in a minute, I’m not going to miss out.”
And then having a little song at the end to close, so it doesn’t have to be very long, and not to worry if it’s not perfect because anyone who works with children knows that perfection is very unlikely. It’s the fun that’s most important.
Can anyone run a music class?
When you start doing something like that, it’s the first time you’ve done it and the first time the child’s done it, but once they know the routine the child will get the hang of it just as you will. And the other thing I would suggest is if you’re doing it in a playgroup and you’re the leader, write yourself a little list of the things you’re going to do and just have it with you. Teachers use lesson plans for really good reasons, so they don’t forget things, and I always have what I’m going to do written down. Lots of it I have in my head, and lots of it I will remember, but I’ve always got it there just in case I suddenly think, “what was I going to do next,” and I can have a quick look.
In a playgroup I’d also say to make sure everyone has a go at leading the session because even if it’s a little bit daunting, we learn best by doing. You might have someone in the group that’s naturally a bossy person that likes to be the leader, but don’t let them do it all the time. Everyone learns from everyone else and someone else might bring something along to the session that’s a fabulous idea that you’ll want to keep doing.
Was the programme successful?
The Community Centre Coordinator who gave you these children to work with told you that the effects of your program on the children were “beyond her expectations.” Were you surprised at how well the program went?
I was surprised in some ways in that given the way some of the children were at the start of the 8 week period. Some of them I was thinking were going to have a hard time at school, but at the end of the 8 weeks they really developed so amazingly that it was really quite astounding and I think it was that very strong, very predictable thing about, “this is what’s going to happen in this class.”
Children do love routine, they like the security of knowing what’s going to happen, but they also love that sense of accomplishment and I think it was the combination of those things. Often with music we can say, “it doesn’t have to be perfect.” We’re not striving for perfection, the experience is the outcome in itself. There’s a lot of satisfaction for children there. It was quite amazing at the end of the 8 weeks that we had demonstration class and you would normally expect children to get quite distracted by having all those people there and not to be able to focus on what we’d been doing. But they just did it so amazingly well, and part of it was because they were really proud of what they’d achieved and they wanted to show everyone what they could do, which was lovely.
A big bit of feedback was them starting school the following year. The facilitator following those children up, going and seeing how they were going in the classroom, talking to the parents and talking to the class teacher, and them all having settled in really easily. So it was a really lovely success.
Obviously the music classes weren’t the only reason the children did well in Kinder because the community centre had been working with them when they visited through the three terms previously. What do you have to say about the effect of doing the music in the fourth term?
That term was like the icing on the cake. Also with the goal of presenting something to their parents, which we also talked about. One of the reasons we were doing these things was to practice them so we could show that they were doing these amazing things.
Were the children worried about having to do a presentation?
No, they were really looking forward to it. Particularly to see them on the day, how excited they were. They all got dressed up and were looking forward to it.
I know that you’re hoping to extend this program further and that you will be running more classes with indigenous children at another center this next school term. Do you have long-term plans for where this school-readiness program might lead?
Well, I would absolutely love for it to be something that we are able to continue to do. Research shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to not access the same amounts of early childhood education as other children. But also that those children benefit from it incredibly. It helps them to start school on a much more equal footing.
If we’re talking about, particularly with indigenous children, closing the gap, a lot of that’s about health, but it’s also about educational outcomes that start before school. So if we can get children to school ready to learn, ready to be engaged, and also not fearful of that experience of being in a classroom they’ll be more successful. I think there’s a lot of potential for these types of programs to benefit a lot of children.
Allison, I’ve really enjoyed learning about how you worked with these kids and the positive effects a music program can have on school-readiness. I also appreciate it because we don’t need to be brilliant singers or have musical training to implement these ideas. We might not do it quite as well as you but I’m sure some of our listeners will decide to take the plunge and add some purposeful music activities to their kids’ days.
Oh, I really hope so.
Thanks again for joining us, Allison, and I wish you great success as you continue to develop this program and work through your PhD.
It was my pleasure!
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Allison Cameron. I do apologise for the sound quality. Allison lives outside the city so the internet connection was spotty. She suggested she could stand on her roof, but we decided not to try that!
Download Allison’s sample class Music Resources for Young Children. It has links to excellent free online resources, too!
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