Ep. 60: How does music training affect children’s Social-Emotional Learning, and how is SEL affected by a pandemic? With Dr. Assal Habibi

September 15, 2020

Many life accomplishments depend less on academic learning than on social-emotional skills such as perseverance, impulse control, empathy, and a willingness to cooperate. Dr. Assal Habibi explains the effects of childhood music training on social development, and how social-emotional skills transfer to other, more consequential areas of life as children get older.


Dr. Assal Habibi is an Assistant Research Professor of Psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California. Her research focuses on how biological dispositions and environmental factors interact [in my layman’s terms, I’m going to call that nature vs. nurture!] and how learning experiences during childhood shape human development. Dr. Habibi completed her doctoral work at UC Irvine, and her research has been published in several peer reviewed journals. She is a classically trained pianist, and has many years of musical teaching experience with children.


  • Habibi is the lead investigator of a 5-year study, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their Youth Orchestra program, investigating the effects of childhood music training on brain, cognitive, and social development (we’re focusing today mostly on the social-emotional component). She gives a brief overview and description of this study.
  • 5-year study (ages 6-11) was extended to 7 years to cover middle school years
  • Control groups for students involved in sports, and students not involved in either sports OR music. Students involved in music training experienced the most results, non-involvement students had low results, and sports participants fell in the middle.
  • Areas of change included:
    • First change observed was in auditory areas of the brain. Ability to discern others’ emotions, etc. (These changes were most significantly higher in music vs. sports groups)
    • Second change observed: Delayed gratification, decision-making, executive function (observed after 3-4 years of training)
    • Ability to synchronize/entrainment; predicts pro-social behavior
    • Corpus collosum: robustness of connectivity in area between two sides of the brain
  • SEL was around before COVID-19 and will be around after COVID-19; but the need for SEL skills is more important than ever. We discuss how the current uncertainties and changes affect the importance and benefits of SEL.
  • We talk about prioritizing student health and safety as schools are ramping up another school year. And that should refer to more than simply not getting COVID – it should also refer to students’ mental, social, and emotional health. We discuss how SEL helps students develop the skills to respond to challenges.
  • Recommendations for arts educators to fully leverage the connections between SEL and the arts.
  • We’re not talking about an extra box for teachers to check. We’re talking about the teaching of life skills being embedded into curriculum, skills that foster SEL skills both in and outside the classroom:
    • Perseverance needed to dedicate oneself to artistic excellence fosters resiliency.
    • Artistic creation fosters self-awareness.
    • The collaborative community leads to embracing diversity.
    • personal goal-setting, self-assessment, and accountability as they develop high standards
    • Performance skills are opportunities to develop social emotional competencies.
  • “I believe everyone will soon come to realize that our arts educators are the secret weapon to implementation of Social Emotional Learning in our schools.” – Dr. Maurice Elias
  • Habibi researches how early childhood positive interventions, such as music training or athletic training, can improve emotion regulation, decision making, academic outcomes, and mental health.
  • Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) provides students with the emotional and social wherewithal to demonstrate the personal attributes, attitudes, and values identified above. Emotional learning involves helping students develop self-understanding, self-regulation, impulse control, the ability to delay gratification, anger management, stress reduction, etc.  Social learning helps students develop an ability to adopt a different perspective, identify emotions in others, feel empathy, listen, communicate effectively, and simply get along with others.
  • “We now have strong scientific evidence, from the work of my lab and others in the field, that learning music not only enhances cognitive functions but also it leads to better socio-emotional skills in children, skills including empathy, patience and prosocial behavior like helping and sharing.” – Dr. Assal Habibi

Connect/Other Resources


Dr. Habibi says: “I would like to share this playlist. This is part of the work we did at the start of the pandemic where we asked 700 people across the world to share their music recommendation for coping with the stress of  COVID 19. It is part of a larger research project looking at how individuals use music for emotion regulation and to connect with each other.”

Closing Words

Thank YOU so much for joining me today. I would love to hear from you! Please let me know of any experiences you’ve had or are aware of where music training has enhanced social-emotional learning. You can connect with me on email, social media, or my website. You can also send me a voice memo that I can share with others in the Enhance Life with Music community by playing in an upcoming episode! I encourage you to enhance someone else’s life with music by sharing this episode with someone who may find it helpful, whether a teacher, a parent, or a grandparent; and whether you share by text, social media, or your own acoustic voice! I want to end this episode with a shoutout to my son Erik, who told me a musical fun fact the other day that I had no idea about – there is a section of road on Route 66 with rumble strips that play “America the Beautiful” if you drive on it at 45 mph! This is so cool!  Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Some of this site’s product links are affiliate links, which means we may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, for purchases made through these links. https://youtu.be/PAFglr10FEAI would LOVE to know the story of how this came to be! I’m actually going to be in this area of New Mexico later this year, so I’ll have to check it out in person! I’ll keep you posted if I do. Thanks again for joining me today. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.

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