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  • Writer's pictureCarla Tanguay, MA, MT-BC

5 Ways Music Can Help Kids Make Transitions

If you have ever hit the snooze button, you know how hard transitions can be. The sound of your alarm is the most unwelcome interruption when you are fast asleep in a cozy bed. Snooze gives you the opportunity to wake up more slowly in a structured, time-limited way.

Transitioning between activities can be especially challenging for children, who often have little say in the structure of a day. As the adult who knows a change in activity is coming (we’ve been running around getting ready to leave the house or making dinner), it can be hard to understand the meltdowns that happen around transitions. But to a child who is completely absorbed in their current activity, transitions can feel abrupt, frustrating, and even threatening. They need their own, special kind of snooze button.

Music to the rescue!

Music has several qualities that make it an excellent tool for helping with transitions. It provides a fun, structured, and attention-grabbing way to help kids transition their bodies and minds.

#1. The first has to do with the structure of music.

Music is repetitious, follows familiar patterns, and is time-limited. Structure equals safety, especially to a child who is feeling anxious or chaotic.

Our brains love patterns, and the repetition that is the hallmark of children’s songs gives little minds a boost. Because a song is structured over time, we quickly learn how long we have between when a transition song starts and when it will end. There are even cues within music that help us know when a song is almost over. If you studied music theory, you know that certain chord changes and modulations are used to set up expectations and resolution in the listener. But even non-musicians usually know when a song is ending. These familiar structures and patterns helps kids feel safe and under control.

#2. The second way music helps with transitions has to do with attention.

You’ve likely had the experience of feeling totally ignored when trying to get a child’s attention (made worse when they are absorbed in an activity and you want them to do something else).

“In one ear and out the other” “Like talking to a wall.”

When speaking doesn’t work, try singing! This little change in intonation and sound is more likely to get a child’s attention. It is a simple enough technique, and it works in part because music activates different regions of our brain than speech alone. For example, sing (to the tune of Farmer in the Dell) "It's time to get dressed, it's time to get dressed. Yes, yes, yes, it is time to get dressed!"

As kids get used to hearing music during transitions, you may need to include some unexpected variations in order to keep their attention. Mix things up with funny lyric changes, switching the tempo or volume (sometimes quiet is better than loud for getting attention!), or encouraging a movement (clapping, stomping, call and response).

#3. The third has to do with activation or energy levels.

Our brains and bodies intrinsically respond to music. Music with a fast tempo, complex accompaniment, and novel lyrics increases our energy level. Music with a slower tempo, simple accompaniment, and familiar tune lowers our activation and calms us. When transitions require a change in energy levels (going from running around outside to sitting quietly, or from playing quietly to quickly leaving the house) music is a perfect technique!

They key to changing energy levels with music is to determine both where the energy is now, and where you want to end up. For example, if you want to help kids move from a high energy level to a low energy level, start with music that matches their high energy (think fast tempo, louder volume). Then, over the course of the song (or several songs), slow the tempo down to match the energy level you are seeking.

#4. The fourth way music can help kids with transitions is through reinforcement.

Songs like the clean up song include lyrics that describe what is or should be happening. Songs that explicitly give clear instructions help kids know what to do and what to expect during transitions. Hearing instructions through lyrics (rather than spoken) can be more fun, motivating, and memorable.

One easy way to get started with this technique is to change the words to a familiar song. For example, you could take the tune to “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain” and change the lyrics to: “We will put on our shoes before we go…We will zip up our jacket…”

#5. The fifth way music can rescue a transition is through the social power of music.

It feels good to sing and move in sync with others. There is lots of fascinating research that demonstrates how music boosts oxytocin, builds trust and helpfulness, increases empathy, and builds social cohesion. Practically, this means that just the boost that children get when hearing their entire class or family sing something together might be enough to get kids on board with a transition.

This is when having special songs that are always sung during specific transitions comes into play. When the whole class sings the “Line Up Song”, or the entire family starts singing, “Take me Riding in the Car” to encourage a child who is having a hard time, it can change their entire perspective around a transition.

Here is a summary, in infographic form!

Learn More

Interested in reading more ideas about music and transitions? I love these articles and ideas:

At School: Edutopia

Kids with Special Needs: Harmony Music Therapy

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