Music Therapy in schools, isn’t it GROOVY?!

I LOVE providing group and individual music therapy sessions for the amazing students in our community schools. There is nothing quite like bridging the gap between the various exceptionalities and needs of my students with an instrument jam or song writing experience. Students who typically work in a 1:1 setting to achieve their individualized goals, are able to spend time with peers, working as teammates, classmates and friends. Passing instruments, taking turns to improvise, answering questions to create an ensemble and/or song, are unique, socially rich experiences that music therapists are trained to provide in the classroom. As students work together in this supported environment, the music therapist is able to successfully address the individual needs of each person. Visual schedules, choice boards, adapted instruments, assisted communication devices, hand over hand supports, etc., are utilized to maximize active participation for each individual. The rewards for their valiant efforts? Music! Indeed, it is GROOVY.

What does Group Music Therapy look like in Schools??

Group music therapy sessions can occur weekly or bi-weekly. My students gather in a semi-circle, often around a kidney table, for a full 30-minutes.  If you were a fly on the wall, you would find that the music never stops. I capitalize on what I know to be true, grounded on evidenced based, music therapy research – and that is to establish a strong and steady beat paired with rhythmic directives, prompts and transitions. The elements of music – tempo, rhythm, form, dynamics, etc., are used prescriptively throughout my groups to promote the non-musical goals the students are working toward. Increasing socialization, taking turns with peers, increasing expressive communication and following directions are some of the goals addressed in my music therapy groups. Teachers receive weekly notes written for each student, so that their progress can be tracked.

Just this week my groups focused their efforts on increasing socialization through interacting with peers by passing instruments around the group, when musically prompted. All instruments were the color purple, as we were jamming to Prince’s “Purple Rain.”   Students each made their instrument choice from a field of 5 and began to play along with me. After some time to jam with their preferred instrument, a rhythmic directive – “3, 2, 1 and pass” was called out. Students then traded instruments by passing to their peers while I continued to guide them, rhythmically prompting as needed – “Joey pass to Sally. Sally pass to Sammy, etc.”

Working to follow directions was also a big focus for this week’s groups.  Imitating rhythmic stick patterns addressed this goal area. Tapping on the floor, tapping sticks together and then reaching the sticks up high while a “Rain and Thunder” chant was sung provided each group member with the opportunity to use a palmer grasp, cross midline, demonstrate gross motor movements and follow start/stop directions. However, students might say they most enjoyed using their imaginations to create animals out of their rhythmic sticks, as the song’s transition incorporated imaginative play by asking students to use the sticks to make “bunny ears,” “cat whiskers,” “walrus tusks,” etc., as the chant noted that these animals “want to go out in the rain.”

Addressing goals in a social setting can be a huge challenge when each person brings such a variety of abilities to the table. However, music therapy provides a safe, creative and adaptable outlet, where the hard work results in quite the symphony of sound!

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What does IEP driven Music Therapy look like in Schools?

As much as I love working with my music therapy groups in the school setting, I find that addressing IEP goals in individual music therapy sessions to be highly valuable, as well. Once a student receives the appropriate SEMTAP or Special Education Music Therapy Assessment Process, to determine the need for music therapy on the IEP, sessions are catered specifically to that student.

For one of my students, music therapy is written into the IEP to support communication goals. I see this student on a weekly basis for a co-treat session, with the SLP. In this setting, music is used as a motivator to increase communication. I also spend time consulting weekly with this student’s teacher and paraprofessional to create therapeutic, social songs that have been used to help him transition to different classrooms and complete daily living skills, such as brushing teeth and washing hands.  

Some of my other students receive 1:1 music therapy sessions on a weekly basis to focus on creating errorless learning opportunities. These students are unable to engage in their world in an outwardly expressive way, as they don’t have the use of their limbs, voices, head/neck control, etc.  However, they can be fully immersed in sensory-rich music therapy experiences where vibro-tactile instruments provide immediate feedback. Even if they can’t physically grasp and manipulate the instruments and props, they can feel them as they are played overhead, near the feet, over the arms or legs, etc. Tracking instruments with colorful beads, light-up options or shiny surfaces, engage these students in a way that is unique to a music therapist’s wheelhouse.

IEP driven music therapy in the schools also ensures that weekly documentation on specific IEP goals is provided by the music therapist along with quarterly reports. Session length, ESY options and IEP meeting attendance is all under the umbrella of music therapy, when included on a student’s IEP.

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By this point, can you tell I love working as a music therapist in the school setting? Every session – group or individual, is filled with amazing students who show up and show off their musical skills in their own unique ways. Goals are being addressed and met as music is being made. It can’t get much better than that!