Early Childhood Music and Movement Association

ECMMA: Early Childhood Music and Movement Association

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Movement Matters

After many years of making music with children, Eve Kodiak, M.M., became interested in the brain/body processes that underlie the learning process. As an Educational Kinesiologist, she now works with people of all ages, using music and developmental movement to create positive change. Eve can be found in her office at The Lydian Center for Innovative Medicine in Cambridge, MA, or at home in New Hampshire, writing and recording. Her CD/book sets include Rappin' on the Reflexes and Feelin' Free, which combine developmental movements with songs, raps, and narrations with music. Eve also performs and records as an improvising classical pianist. More information and articles on music and developmental movement may be found at www.evekodiak.com.


The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily promote official policy of ECMMA.

Happiness is Normal

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It is simple, but we can’t seem to get it. Stress is not the state our bodies and brains were designed to sustain. Happiness is.

When I use the terms stress and happiness, I’m talking about the quantifiable physiological responses that unconsciously define our qualitative experiences. I’m using stress to mean what happens when the body’s alarm system perceives potential danger, and starts the preliminary freeze-fight-flight response. I’m talking about happiness as what happens in our body/mind systems when we are simply present in the moment.

We know we are in stress when we experience some of the many symptoms of stress – increased heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, muscle tension, darting eyes, emotional unrest, and so on. We know we are happy when we are breathing well, seeing clearly, moving in a way that feels integrated, absorbed in what we are doing.

When children are happy, they are just doing normal everyday things. Playing in the sandbox. Eating bananas. Singing. Rocking in our laps. Happiness is designed to be our steady state; it is what we are wired for. Stress is designed to get us out of danger quickly so that we can go back to being happy.

The amount of happiness vs. the amount of stress our choices create ought to be a benchmark for all of our decisions. But instead, we tend to go for results that match our ideas of the way things should be. We tend to take the stress we experience for granted, and to look at happiness as a kind of perk.

One of my colleagues is a music specialist in a preschool, and she was astounded one morning to see a little boy with an ashen face being led to her by his teacher. That boy had disappeared from circle the week before, but she hadn’t known why. Apparently, he had “done” something and the teacher had pulled him out. Now he was returning with an apology letter.

It was clear to her that he didn’t understand what he had “done” any more than she did. So she looked at the letter and announced to the other children that this was a private letter from this little boy, and it was special for her. She looked at it and said, “Did you write all those letters yourself? Boy, those are a lot of letters!” She had him sit next to her for the whole class. It took a lot of nurturing for him to be comfortable in circle again.

Learning and growing requires challenge. But the amount of stress needed to create challenge is very small. Very small. Positive challenge is a problem that can be approached without fear or blame or shame or overwhelm.  But when the scope of a child’s problem escalates his sense of challenge into a full-blown stress response, the opportunity for positive learning is lost. All we have done is create or reinforce a traumatic trigger. We may even have impeded the child’s ability to learn in the future, because any time a situation reminds him of this one it may trigger a reflexive stress response.

Psychologist John Gottman says that there are two ways to discover whether parents are fighting. The first way is to ask the couple. The second way is to take a 24 hour urine sample from their children . When parents are fighting, children secrete stress hormones.

Stress hormones are part of the alarm system. It doesn’t matter who breaks the glass on the fire alarm – arguing parents, bullying children, disapproving teachers. As long as the stress continues, the stress hormones keep flowing.

Gottman goes on to say that the first place this stress shows up in a child’s behavior is in the attentional system. It affects the child’s ability to focus attention, to shift attention, and to sustain attention.

What are kids doing when they are happy? Their attention is focused – We’re playing house. They can shift attention – You be the mommy! No, I want to be the baby. They can sustain the attention – the play goes on and on.

What are kids doing when they are in stress? Their behavior tends to move to the extremes of the attention spectrum. They may get very rigid, locking into an activity, or an idea, or a behavior that they can’t seem to break out of. Or else they can’t seem to focus at all; everything distracts them. Either way, they don’t retain information or follow directions very well. They can’t come up with a creative response or learn anything new.

My colleague did a brilliant job of deactivating the stress situation. She turned his shame into a special privilege in the eyes of the other children (“This is a private letter.”) She said nothing about the content of the letter – she only talked about the positive effort he had put into it (“Did you write all those letters yourself?”) And she did Wave Hello (Too Scared To Come In, 5/25/12 and Love, 2/11/13) with the whole class, and that reflex integration rap relaxed him. His traumatic experience faded into the background.

It’s a simple idea: happiness is better than stress. And it’s a simple program: make the decisions that create a happy experience rather than a stressful one. And it’s a simple evaluation: is the way I’m dealing with this challenge going to put me into more stress? Or is it going to move me through into happiness?

If we do it for ourselves, we teach it to our children. And when we watch them play, children are teaching it to us.


Cassie Clouser Jun 28, 2013

Thank you, Eve! It’s so easy to overlook the magnitude of how much children feel the effects of how we behave as parents. I can definitely see the difference between the happiness mode and the stress mode in my own children and students.

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