Five Amazing Ways Music Therapy Can Help Children with Special Needs

Music therapy is a highly effective evidenced-based tool in the treatment of children and adolescents with special needs.  SINAI’s own board certified music therapist, Erika Svolos, shares five ways she sees Music Therapy support and help our SINAI students each day.

  1. Music Therapy enhances and supports students’ ability to effectively communicate with others.  Music has been a form of communication from the beginning of time.  In music therapy, we use experiences like music making, music creation, and singing to provide our students with new ways to express their thoughts and feelings.  I can remember how amazed our teachers were when one of our students, with selective mutism, spontaneously decided to sing with and in front of the entire class.  Although her voice level was at a whisper, it was the first time they had seen her comfortable using her voice with a smile on her face.  This girl continued to sing in music therapy with the group and independently for the rest of the school year.
  2. Music Therapy creates a safe and non-verbal avenue for understanding and processing feelings.  Many children, especially those with special needs, find it difficult to manage their feelings.  Experiencing and labeling these feelings through music provides students with a new and non-threatening means to understanding and working through them.  Not long ago, a student revealed his anxiety and difficulty connecting with his peers while learning to play a favorite song on the guitar.  The difficulty he experienced in this musical process provided him a direct path to the painful feelings he was struggling to comprehend.  Shortly after this revelation, the student turned to me and asked, “Can you help me to handle my anxiety?”
  3. Music Therapy offers an engaging and open environment for students to practice social skills.  Making music with others is a social experience.  For children who struggle to connect and socialize with others, music provides a space where they can practice these skills.  Some of the most exciting moments I see are when students play and/or sing music--- especially when they have to take turns, have a solo, and then come back to playing together.  I once worked with a group of students who struggled to find ways of doing things as a group.  They all enjoyed playing the drums, so I created a drumming experience where the group had a rhythmic pattern they played together but each student would have his own, solo, rhythmic pattern to play as well.  We spent several sessions successfully taking turns going between the group pattern and the unique patterns that each student had created.   It was magical to watch.
  4. Music Therapy provides opportunities for students to experience success and to see their value and self-worth.  Creating something that is your own and that you enjoy is rewarding, especially for those students who experience daily struggles in their lives.  I have the distinct honor of creating an environment where students can safely explore and succeed at making their own music, making music with others, and seeing and hearing their success instantly.  Recently, in a group of younger students, we created a music performance and video where each student had a part in a holiday song.  Some played instruments while others danced and sang.  The group worked for several weeks to master the choreography of each child getting up at his or her turn and performing his or her part.  Each student was focused and ready, and when we did our final performance and video there was a sea of smiles from ear to ear.  In discussion after we had finished, each child was able to identify and express the value of what he or she had brought to the creation.
  5. Music Therapy provides a space for students to regulate their bodies and emotions, while developing the ability to control themselves.  The rhythm in music regulates and carries us from the beginning to the end.  Our bodies tend to entrain into the speed and rhythms in music, particularly when we are creating the rhythms with our bodies, an instrument, and/or singing. In music therapy, I capitalize on this physiological process.  For students with dysregulation and poor self-soothing skills I use music to teach my students how to regulate and gain some control over their bodies and emotions.  Our youngest students frequently enter sessions highly dysregulated and hyperactive.  I always begin with the same song they know, and when they are excitable I begin the song faster with drums or movement.  As we repeat the song for a period, I slowly adjust and change the music, which aids the students in methodically slowing down their bodies and gaining more control.  At the end of this experience, we spend a few moments listening to slower, softer music and doing diaphragmatic breathing exercises to prepare ourselves for the next task.

Music has the power to connect, support, uplift and soothe.  Within the therapeutic relationship with a board certified music therapist, music has an endless capability to help many children reach their greatest potential.

Erika Svolos is a Board Certified Music Therapist with over 18 years of experience working with children who have special needs.  At SINAI Schools, she works with children of all ages and abilities, using music as a therapeutic tool to meet each of their specific needs.  SINAI operates several inclusive special education schools throughout the New York metropolitan area for Jewish children through age 21, and provides services for adults with developmental disabilities.  For additional interesting articles on special education, visit the SINAI blog at www.sinaischools.org/blog.