Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Music on the teen mind

Can listening to dancehall improve behaviour?


IN PRISON: Vybz Kartel

Mark Fraser

 So often we hear parents and teachers complaining about the kind of music today’s teenagers listen to and the range of negative effects this can have on them, both psychologically and socially.  

In May 2003, the American Psychological Association published a study that showed that songs with violent lyrics increased aggression-related thoughts and emotions.  

However, research at The UWI St Augustine Campus is revealing that the opposite is also possible.  Popular music such as rap and dancehall, which tend to be among the most listened-to genres by teenagers, can also be used in a constructive way to work through aggression or anxiety, with the guidance of trained and experienced counsellors.

The Trinidad and Tobago Youth at Risk Project (TTYP) funded by The UWI’s Research and Development Impact Fund (RDI Fund) in 2012 used innovative approaches to address youth violence and misbehaviour in selected schools in Trinidad and Tobago.  

The TTYP provided troubled students with individual, group and family guidance sessions which were structured to address health and environmental factors that cause deviant behaviour. More specifically, this research study investigated the efficacy of using three proven counselling approaches to reduce violence and behaviour disorders in school.

Dr Sandra Celestine, Lecturer in the Department of Behavioural Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences and Team Leader for the TTYP explained: “We quickly realised that we were confronted with multi-faceted problems. These are problems that will require changes in our educational policy, health-care policy, national security and national development policy to stem the tide of increasing youth misbehaviour, school violence and school crime.” This project was carried out in collaboration with Families in Action, with support from several key stakeholders including the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and received approval from the Ministry of Education to approach selected secondary school principals and request the participation of their students. 

The TTYP only accepted children who were referred by the school principal as suspended or about to be suspended for breaking any of the school rules set by the Ministry of Education.  The types of school offences included extortion, robbery, disrespect for authority, fighting with or without a weapon and sexual misconduct, among others.  

Every student referred had to complete a ten-week therapy programme consisting of individual counselling in the school setting, and group and parent/child sessions. The project provided services in one school designated as a “hot spot” area and one school serving students primarily from “hot spot” areas.   

The project team used group, individual and family counselling methods to increase the chances of successfully changing student misbehaviour. Counselling sessions consisted of music therapy and peer counselling. Music is widely recognised as one of the best methods to engage children and bring about immediate and positive change.  

Thus, the counsellors involved in the project were keen on incorporating music into the therapy and this enabled them to engage students, support their music choices and explore the various ways in which young people respond to music.   

Since most teenagers tend to gravitate towards music that describes what they are feeling and what is important to them, the widespread popularity of dancehall artistes, such as Vybz Kartel, Mavado and Tommy Lee, especially among young males, seemed relevant and instructive.  

While playing with the lyrics of specific songs from Vybz Kartel or singing along with Tommy Lee’s “Uncle Demon”, the peer group members openly expressed why their own feelings and experiences made it easy for them to identify with the words in these popular songs.

“Not only does singing along with the lyrics of a song provide the healthy release of painful or difficult emotions, but discussing the violent words of a song may help an angry youth express his/her rage and change the negative behaviours by encouraging self-expression and self-awareness”,  Dr Celestine explained further. “This may sound impossible—but listening to Vybz Kartel can be used by trained counselling professionals to help troubled youth as part of a corrective, emotional, healing experience”.  

The TTYP research study also revealed that group peer counselling produced faster results than individual counselling for most students and parent guidance sessions improved the outcomes of the therapy. 

Research findings

The immediate successes of the TTYP have been improved student behaviour for nearly 40 per cent of the student participants and identification of the specific issues that may cause a student to misbehave in over 95 per cent of the cases.  

The research data underscored the importance of counselling for both the child and the family to ensure the success of interventions aimed at addressing student misbehaviour and school violence. 

Early results obtained by exit interviews of students who received the innovative counselling showed a decrease in depressive mood, a marked increase in self-esteem and most importantly, improved coping skills. 

The TTYP is committed to tracking these students for at least one year to determine if there is a reduction in misbehaviour and risky behaviours and if there is any concomitant increase in academic performance.

Based on these findings and the success of TTYP interventions, a second phase is being explored by the research team and its partners. “These are the kinds of projects which, once piloted and successfully executed, can be scaled up to involve the participation of many more. This is the way our UWI research projects can truly have an impact on society” stated Prof Clement Sankat, Pro Vice-Chancellor and campus principal, and chair of the RDI Fund.  “It is my hope that other institutions and individuals in the public and private sectors will demonstrate their commitment to bringing about positive change in Trinidad and Tobago by partnering with our UWI researchers and providing additional funding for scaling up these projects at the national level.”

The university plays a key role in conducting research that produces empirical data on a specific phenomenon or situation as it exists in society or on the impact that policies are having on society. 

The research may also point to new or improved approaches or policies that could help bring about the desired change in society.  

It is then the task of senior officials and decision-makers in the public and private sectors as well as civil society to sift through the evidence presented and look at what works, that is, to identify evidence-based solutions which can inform laws, policies and institutional practices to take the country and region forward.   

For more information on this project, please contact Dr Sandra Celestine at 

For information on all UWI St Augustine research, please visit