Music Therapy with High School Students and Disabilities
24 Jun 15
Written by Amelia Koebel, BMT
I currently work in a couple of different high schools with youth in grades 8 through 12. The classes that I work with include students with a variety of both physical and cognitive disabilities. Common diagnoses include Autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy. One thing that all of these student’s have in common is that they LOVE music. It is a huge part of their existence. Integral to their growth and their search for identity. It is one thing that they can all relate to out of the many other things that are going on in their lives.
As part of my work, I facilitate group sessions and this group music therapy gives the students opportunities to improve and maintain various skills. They are provided with experiences that help increase and improve social skills, communication skills, cognitive skills, motor skills and emotional skills.
The group members are all given the opportunity to engage in social tasks involving cooperative interaction including awareness of others, sharing, turn taking, exchanging, leadership and initiation. Receptive and Expressive communication skills are practiced through the use of instruments, vocalizations or when group members are able to communicate their choices and ideas. Decision making, perception, reasoning, understanding, memory and vocabulary building activities are all used to carry out tasks requiring cognitive skills.
During my groups, I sometimes provide the participants with a list of songs. Some may be familiar, some may not. They are asked to choose a song from the list for the group to sing together. If it is appropriate we may also discuss why the song was chosen and if the student has a connection to it. Motor skills are also often used through dancing!
One of the activities that these students love to do is express themselves through dance. Whether it is a song of their choice or a new piece that I’ve brought in, they always find a way to move to it. Some like to dance for others and make it more of a performance. I recently had a student who had choreographed an entire dance, on his own time, to a song that he loved and showed the group the next time we were together. Others like to dance together either as a group or in pairs. The infamous dance off is also a popular activity and students take this as a fun opportunity to show their moves.
Another way that students enjoy using their motor skills is through the manipulation of selected instruments which require palmer or pincer grasp and the use of individual fingers. Students get the chance to express skills such as self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy through both verbal and nonverbal means. Instrument play or singing in either a structured or improvised style is also used as a form of emotional expression.
Increasing and improving these skills is a necessary step in these student’s lives. Music therapy helps them work towards something, demonstrate it and succeed at it in a unique way. Overall, music therapy provides students with many opportunities to participate and engage together as a group. Through modeling, verbal prompting, gestural prompting, hand over hand assistance and contingent reinforcement group members are given the encouragement that they need. There are a variety of activities that I have found success with including songwriting, instrument play, movement to music, discussion about music and musical games. In a high school setting, music therapy is beneficial to all that are involved. Students, teachers, supportive staff and even siblings who also attend the school are often involved and assist in the group. Music brings everyone together and truly brightens their day. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of and I enjoy it immensely.