An Amazing New Tool for Drug, Alcohol, and Violence Prevention Through Mental Awareness
by David Harp, M. A.
Who is at Risk? And What Can We Do About It?
Which of our children are at risk today? All of them, due to the barrage of negative images and messages they receive, regarding alcohol, tobacco, additional drugs, violence, and other high risk behavior. Some of these messages come from TV and advertising, others from peers. But all of these messages have one intervention point in common: They must be filtered through the mind of each individual.
Thus, if we can teach our children how to understand and work with their own thoughts (as described in recent books such as Emotional Intelligence[Goleman] or Learned Optimism" [Seligman et al]), we give them a powerful tool for making up their own minds and resisting these dangerous and pervasive messages. This form of teaching important inter- and intrapersonal skills is widely accepted in the fields of social and clinical psychology, and is often known as cognitive psychology or cognitive behavioral psychology. I have a unique, effective, and entertaining method for teaching these skills to children of any age.
Why Use Music?
A growing body of literature indicates that music, whether performed or even listened to, can augment the capacities of the human brain (Raucher et al, UC Irvine, 1993, and the work of Gardiner in Providence RI, 1996). Additional literature (The Search Institute, 1996) suggests that playing a musical instrument is an important developmental asset which can lower the risk of dropping out of school for adolescents.
And its clearly true (even without further experimentation) that kids would prefer to gain important mental/social skills by learning to play an instrument, rather than attending a lecture on the importance of the orbito-frontal cortex in mediating limbic system responses to situations that lead to anger or fear reactions! Properly taught, the content can be similar, but the experience in the second case much more entertaining!
Better Attention: As Taught by Harmonica!
My uniquely effective Harmonica Hand Signal Method forces the group to focus their minds eye very carefully on my signals. They are rewarded by being able to play music Blues, Rock, Rap, or Beethoven almost instantly.
Of course, many successful adults have learned this, either explicitly or implicitly. But others of us (especially some kids, these days) meander through life without learning to concentrate or focus in a self-disciplined way. And no one ever seems to tell the children this most important secret...
At the Mercy of the Mind
Unfortunately, people who have never mastered this secret often find themselves at the mercy of their own minds and thoughts, not to mention at the mercy of the suggestions of others. Their anger thoughts may burst into physical action, with no hope of intervention before they explode. While trying to concentrate on a test or a problem, theyll begin to think about lunch, or a problematic encounter from yesterday. Or, even worse, begin to have self-defeating thoughts of fear or sensations of anxiety that seem to come out of nowhere. And fears (especially about social and relationship issues) are often the breeding ground for drug and alcohol use, as recent research indicates!
More on Cognitive Behavioral Psychology
Cognitive behavioral psychology (as developed by Ellis and Beck), is today considered the most popular and effective way to change behavior. It is based on teaching people to understand and work with their own thoughts. This widely accepted form of therapy is being very successfully used to treat drug and alcohol addiction (as well as depression and obsessive/compulsive behavior). It is also an excellent framework for teaching social skills. Children and teens (and adults, as well) who understand their own minds, and know the social skills necessary for good interpersonal relationships are far less vulnerable to pressure from their peers, or the media.
Playing With the Harmonica and the Mind: How It Works
I have many techniques for presenting these issues to children and teens, depending on the age of the group, and any special needs. This includes an age-specific handout (appended below). Here are just a few specific examples of my techniques.
Mental Focus Skills
The ability to focus ones mental attention is at the core of cognitive psychology. With teens, I often illustrate mental focus skills by combining a unique thought counting exercise with a rock and roll improvisation. For younger children, we do a David Says... exercise to teach my Harmonica Hand Signals, then practice using them to play songs. I let the children demonstrate for themselves how easy it is to shift from paying attention to real life to paying attention to the stories that your mind is telling you (and, I teach them how, so often, these stories are false and destructive). In this respect, my work is somewhat similar to Seligmans attribution theory work on Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child.
Active listening is the act of turning ones attention fully onto another person (rather than either not paying attention, or projecting ones own needs, feelings, and wishes onto the other). This is a crucial relationship skill, because it can help kids to understand the processes by which peer pressure and violence situations evolve. I teach this by having the children play duos with each other, one taking the role of the caller and the other the role of the responder. This method of playing (from the African musical tradition) takes the content out of the interaction, which allows the children to focus (with my help) on the process of interaction. By seeing their habituapatterns in a low risk situation, they can work more easily on bettering their ways of relating to others.
Self-Judging, Negative Self-Talk, and the Take Two!
Many of us (of any age) attempt to cover the pain of feeling like a failure with external rewards or self-medications ranging from drugs and alcohol to overeating, compulsive exercise, or even bullying. Cognitive psychology teaches us to deal more directly with the pain of failure or embarrassment, by treating such thoughts with awareness and compassion.
I often teach this skill by presenting the group with a song that pushes their technical limits. No, we wont get it right the first time. But instead of self-judging thoughts (negative self-talk following a mistake or embarrassing situation), well just call Take Two! in fine musician fashion, and once again practice learning from the mistakes of the past without dwelling on them, so that we can proceed with minds unclouded by self-doubt or other negative thoughts. This skill can then be easily applied to non-musical situations.
Developing Emotional Intelligence, and an Afro-American Game
All of these skills and techniques are aimed at the goal of developing Emotional intelligence. As mentioned above, Emotional Intelligence is nothing more than learning to pay attention to the process of thinking. By doing so, we learn to recognize how thoughts produce emotions, and how to recognize and work skillfully with those thoughts, and thus control the emotions they engender.
With older kids, I can teach this more directly. A very effective way to start paying attention to the thought process, is to learn how to clear the mind through attention to the breath (with harmonica). As we become better at keeping the mind focused on the breath, thoughts will stand out more clearly against the quieted background of the mind, without the camouflage of our usual mental chatter. As our minds become clearer, we become better able to make them up for ourselves an incredibly important skill for all, in these times!
I also like to use the African-American musical tradition known as the dozens (in which two singers try to provoke each other into losing their tempers, while the winner is the one who can continue to respond in verse only). This is fun, creative, a good opportunity to look at messages in musical lyrics, and great training in self-control as it pertains to bullying issues whether the student is a provider or a recipient!
I truly believe that the combination of cognitive behavioral psychology and the harmonica can be a wonderful tool to help children understand themselves. And kids that know their own minds their needs, their fears, their habitual reactions are far more resistant to bad influences from any direction. In addition, children who know how to focus their attention do better in academics, athletics, and interpersonal relationships all important elements for keeping our children in school, and out of trouble!
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