Struggles with self-regulation? Try these 7 rhythm and music activities


From time to time, different things can affect a child's ability to control their reactions, emotions and behaviour.

Tiredness, illness, changes to routine and periods of heightened anxiety or uncertainty, such as that experienced during the pandemic, can affect self-regulation.

This, in turn, affects a child's ability to make friends, learn, and feel good about themselves.

QUT Associate Professor Kate Williams, an early childhood researcher in brain development and self-regulation, said stressful times were an opportunity to teach children more about self-regulation.

'As educators you can help children struggling with self-regulation to develop their skills in fun and age-appropriate ways,' Kate said.

Kate's research shows how educators can use rhythm, movement and music to help children understand and manage their behaviour and physical responses to how they are feeling and what is happening around them.

'These types of playful activities give children a sense of structure and predictability, and allow them to feel effective and successful.

'This supports self-regulation development.'

Kate said rhythm and music encouraged children and educators to move in time with each other.

'This is known as interpersonal synchrony.'

'Interpersonal synchrony leads to greater helping behaviours, empathy and social cohesion.

'So rhythmic movement is also a really great way to bring together groups after much time spent apart.'

Kate said not to worry if someone was out of time with the music.

'You can't make someone find the beat.

'By providing the opportunity the brain will look for the patterns and work things out itself.'

If you are worried about a child's behaviour, encourage their parents or carers to contact a professional such as a GP.

7 rhythm and music experiences that develop self-regulation skills

  1. Nursery rhymes and action songs like Incy Wincy Spider; Galumph; or Heads, shoulders, knees and toes.
  2. Move in time together while listening to music. Music will help you to keep time.
  3. Use slower instrumental or world music to create a sense of calm and relaxation. Perhaps encourage children to sway like a tree, then move to the floor to lie and focus on their breathing.
  4. Clap your hands or bang on an upside-down container like a drum and have children copy you or march to the beat. Or shake it up and see if the little ones are interested in making shakers (instructions below).
  5. Show a series of 4 body percussion movements such as clapping hands, stomping feet, patting thighs and tapping shoulders (think Heads, shoulders, knees and toes) and have children copy you. Do them forward and backwards, fast, then slow, stopping and starting.
  6. Put on some appropriate rhythmic music and encourage children to clap and stomp to the rhythm. Try The Lion King soundtrack or check out the sing-along songs below.
  7. Encourage children to take turns choosing dance moves for the rest of the group to follow.
  8. Keep activities fun, relaxed and let children choose if they want to participate or not—this is when the brain works best.

Sing along: songs with lyrics

The Raising Children Network's website has a collection of children's karaoke songs that everyone can sing along to:

Shake it up

Follow these instructions if children are interested in making their own shakers to create their own music.

You will need:

  1. Small plastic bottles or jars with lids.
  2. By using different objects and amounts in each shaker, they will each produce a different sound (this is also a science learning opportunity – why do they sound different?). Why not try gum nuts, leaves, twigs, buttons or gravel?
  3. Collage materials and paint.

What to do:

  1. Make sure materials are clean, including following COVID-19 advice.
  2. Place your objects in the container.
  3. Seal the container tightly. Wrap tape around the lid to secure the contents.
  4. Invite your child to shake their container and listen to the sounds it makes as they experiment with ways to move it.
  5. Decorate the shaker with paints or collage materials.

Related information

Watch Kate's videos on building self-regulation skills with rhythm, movement and music:

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Last updated 15 April 2021