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It’s a Snap! 4 Ways to Use Music With Special Needs Students

Special ed teachers should consider music in their classrooms to supplement visuals, teach through students’ favorite songs, emphasize rhythm, and generalize lessons into non-musical settings.

music in special education articles

I’ve heard Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" a few times in the last week, and the unhappy news is that it's now playing on repeat inside my head . . . over and over and over again. The good news is that we can actually use this scenario to our advantage with our difficult-to-reach students and special learners. Music can often be the key that unlocks the door to learning for children who think outside of the box. In fact, studies have found that individuals with diagnoses such as autism and Williams syndrome frequently have preserved musical abilities despite challenges in non-music functioning.

Capitalizing on these benefits, board-certified music therapists develop music-based interventions to help students make progress in educational goal areas. Music therapy is even recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and states such as California as a related service which may be required for a student to benefit from his or her educational program.

As music therapists, we have the unique opportunity to compose educational songs, write learning chants, and use musical cues to target goals that students are having difficulty meeting. We use music as a motivator, memory tool, timekeeper, and way to elicit communication when other strategies have not been effective. In school settings, music therapists provide consultation, training, and resources to the child's teacher and other members of the IEP team.

Even if you sing off-key, there are many simple ways for integrating music-assisted learning techniques to help your students tune in. Here are four music therapist-recommended strategies to use music as a teaching tool in special education.

1. Music + Visual Supports = Increased Comprehension

While music is an effective memory cue and learning modality, many students still perform best when visual cues are paired with auditory stimuli. Using flash cards, song story books , digital pictures, and even physical gestures can increase students' understanding of the lyrics they are hearing or singing. Here's an example of a song about money with simple visual supports:

2. Favorite Songs as a Teaching Tool

For students who have limited interests or are difficult to engage, try creating a lesson plan around one of their favorite songs. Let's take the earlier example of the song "Happy." Given printed or digital lyric sheets, students can read the song lyrics out loud, identify unfamiliar vocabulary, circle key words, and discuss the song's meaning. Afterward, students can complete a related writing activity based on the central themes in the song.

For younger students, provide pictures or photos that relate to the main characters, animals, objects, or actions from a song. Engage the student in selecting the correct pictures as you sing the words from the song, or have them sequence the pictures in order from memory after listening to the song.

3. Rhythm Is Your Friend

There is a focus in special education (especially with autism intervention) on structuring the student's visual environment. What about auditory information? Verbal instructions and dialog can also be overwhelming for students who have difficulty filtering for the important information they should attend to. Rhythm helps emphasize key words, add a predictable cadence, and naturally gets the body in sync with and tuned into the activity.

Try this simple greeting chant:

Let’s go 'round in a circle. Let’s go 'round in a game. When I get to you, tell me, what’s your name?

Students can tap the syllables to their name on a drum to help with their articulation and pacing. Tapping a rhythm on the table, a knee, or a drum is also a great tool for students who speak too fast or are difficult to understand.

4. Generalization Is Key

It's great to see a student who can sing his or her phone number, math facts, or classroom rules through a song, but what happens when music time is over? It's our job as educators to facilitate the generalization of skills from the music to the non-music setting. Some ways to do this include:

  • After a song, ask the students "Wh" questions (who, what, when, where, why) about the song content in spoken language.
  • Use visual supports from the song during related non-music activities. You might use pictures from a hand-washing song as cues during actual hand washing at the sink.
  • Use lyrics from the song as cues throughout the week. If you have a behavioral song cuing the student to keep their hands down, you might start by singing the "hands down" phrase at other times during the day when you see the student becoming restless. Later you can fade the singing into a spoken voice.

Now it's your turn to get those songs out of your head and into the classroom! And please share with us how you use music with your special education students.

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Music For Special Education: The How to Guide to Success in Music Class

  • September 4, 2022

Do you teach music for special education classes? Have you ever been stumped on how to make your self-contained special ed music class fun, engaging and successful for your students?

If so, you are in good company. It can be challenging finding what works for your special education music classes.

In this blog post I will share with you some of the things that I have learned through trial and error in my own classroom, and hopefully save you some of the challenges I had when starting to plan music lessons for special needs students.

Benefits of Music for Special Needs Students

There are so many benefits to exposing your special needs students to music. Here are just a few of the many ways that music benefits all students, especially students with special needs.

Social Benefits of Music

Music class can be a good way to teach social skills to students. Having a hello song and teaching students about responding to a hello greeting is a social skill they can learn.

Taking turns with an instrument is another one. Many of these students may have social goals on their IEP that you can work towards in your songs and activities.

Emotional Benefits of Music

Some special needs students may have difficulty expressing their emotions. They may also have difficulty processing emotional cues in others, such as body language and facial expressions.

You could use a song like If You’re Happy and You Know It, and in between repetitions of the song, have pictures of people with different emotions and have students identify what emotion they see.

Also, students get the emotional benefits of joy, camaraderie, and all the other wonderful emotions you can experience through music! 

chart showing the benefits of music for special needs students

Educational Benefits of Music

Songs can be a great way to practice foundational skills such as identifying colors, counting to ten, identifying letters, words or numbers, just to name a few. Again, there might be specific IEP goals students are working towards that you can incorporate into some of your songs.

For example, I did a winter song and then had students count the snowflakes. For more advanced students, I would have two sets of snowflakes. They have to point to the set with 3 snowflakes or the set with 5 snowflakes.

two sets of snowflakes

Musical Benefits of Music

And of course we can’t forget the musical benefits of music for special education. Learning about concepts such as steady beat, singing, correct use of instruments and all the other musical concepts that you can explore in your class.

Remember that for many students, the eventual goal is to mainstream them. So the more you can prepare them to join a mainstream classroom with some basic musical knowledge, the better.

Accommodations will most certainly have to be made even after mainstreaming, but it would help them tremendously to have some basic knowledge to work from.

Planning Music Lesson for Special Needs Students

Set some basics music goals for your special ed students.

I have two different levels that I see – PreK and K-5. While there is a wide range of students in the K-5 class, there are more students on the older side (2nd grade and up).

text: tailor goals to your student's needs with target icon

For my PreK class, my goals are mostly to get them to respond to music through some sort of movement and to explore the correct use of an instrument such as rhythm sticks or a drum. Do not expect that all students will respond right away. Expect a lot of blank stares the first time. Students need MANY repetitions of the same song before they might join in and move along with it.

With my older grades, we started with the steady beat. We also had goals such as sorting percussion into metal and wood groups and describing how a song makes them feel. Many students are non-verbal, so I have not done any singing goals, but each group of students is different. Tailor your goals to their needs.

Tips on How to Teach Music to Special Needs Students

Students thrive on routines, especially in special education. Have a standard routine every time students come to your room. Mine consists of sitting, reviewing correct music class behaviors, looking at our visual picture schedule, singing a hello song, doing some songs and activities and then our goodbye song.

I cannot stress this one enough. Repetition is KEY for special ed students. With my PreK class, I will be slowing this down considerably next year to the point of creating a new lesson for them each quarter.

That’s right. They will repeat basically the same lesson for 9 weeks in a row. And love it. I will add an extra level of familiarity with them during the beginning of the year by using mostly songs they already know (Wheels on the Bus, Baby Shark, etc), that will help take away from the unfamiliarness of a new space (the music room).

My older class doesn’t need to repeat quite that much, but we will probably do the same songs for at least a month at a time.

text: repetition and routine are key in a special ed setting

Picture Schedule

When teaching music for special education classes, have a visual schedule of what you are doing for the day. Students thrive on routine, and knowing their schedule helps them know the purpose of the lesson and what is happening next. Otherwise, anxiety over the unknown can spiral your class right out of control.

Students who do not know the game plan for the class period often act out with a variety of behaviors, so give them what they need (a picture schedule), and you’ll already have upped the success factor in your class.

picture schedule for a special ed music class

A great place to learn more about picture schedules in at Autism Little Learners . Tara has a wealth of information about ways to use visual supports in your classroom. You can even check out this 7-Day Visual Supports Challenge .

Visuals are incredibly useful in teaching music for special education. With my PreK class, I have learned to give the verbal direction once, then just use the visual until they comply or I show them what I am trying to communicate, hand over hand.

See if you can give one word directions. Clap. Sit. Play. I had no concept of how many extra words I was using until I first encountered my PreK class. The assistants in that class coached me and it took a while but our class was rocking by the end of the year.

PowerPoint visuals for special needs learners in music class

I use visuals to show what I want them to do in each activity (clap, play an instrument, listen, etc) and to help them pick choices (ex: what animal should we sing about on Old MacDonald’s farm?).

I use a visual of students sitting when they come in the door. I have visuals of our rules (I use the same ones that they use in their classroom at circle time). If there is something you want them to understand, be prepared to have a visual handy.

Puppets and Play Toys

Music can be a bit abstract for many students. Having something concrete can help them perceive and respond to music. For example, marching toy dinosaurs to We Are the Dinosaurs by The Laurie Bernker Band was a wild success with my PreK class.


Isn’t it universally true that every song is better with an instrument to play along? Special ed students love instruments just as much as all your other students. So of course we use them in practically every lesson.

I usually have an instrument of the month (or quarter for my PreK). We discuss the correct way to use it (not in the mouth, gentle, etc). Then we pass it out and play with the song.

Sensory Activities

One thing that is a huge hit with special ed students is sensory experiences. Things like sitting under a big parachute as the adults lift it up and down over their heads, having a giant scarf brushing up and down over their face as you lift it up and down, bubble activities and more.

picture of students with a parachute and balls entitled sensory activities

Hand Over Hand

Sometimes when you are teaching students skills such as steady beat or even making a choice of two pictures on a piece of paper, you may have to physically guide their hand. This is called “hand over hand” and is a form of scaffolding to help them learn new skills.

This can be a very helpful tool, but always keep in mind the temperament of the child as well. Some students are ok with hand over hand. Some students are resistant to touch. The student’s aide should be able to help you gauge what is best for each individual child.

Limited Choices

An overabundance of choices can be very overwhelming to special needs students. When possible, give students just two choices. 

For example, when teaching about types of percussion, we didn’t sort woods, membranes, shakers and metal all at the same time. We just sorted metal or wood. So for each instrument I could just ask metal or wood?

text: giving students limited choices can help them make decisions.

Non-verbal options

Remember, many of your students may be non-verbal or have limited verbal abilities. If you can find the right way to ask a question, you might be surprised how much they know.

The first time I to tried to teach about types of percussion, I thought the kids were not grasping it at all. I would show an instrument we had just talked about and ask them – is this a metal? Well, no matter what instrument is was, they would just say “yes” to everything.

Then I had a different idea. I gave them the instrument in their hands. Then I grabbed two buckets. I asked “metal or wood” indicating one bucket for metal and the other for wood. They had about 95% accuracy after that.

two bins for sorting percussion cards into metal or wood categories

Another non-verbal tool is a choice chart. It has picture of, for example, different movements we could do to a song (tap, jump, clap, etc). Students can point to their choice.

choice chart for special ed with movements such as walk, tip toe, jump, run, stomp, and spin

Finally, here is another example of a non-verbal tool I used in teaching music for special education. I saw a music and emotions worksheets on @buchananmusicprogram on Instagram and thought – this would be perfect for my special ed students!

Students pick a color and emotion to go with a song. We listened to different kids of music and students worked with an aide to decide on a picture to paste and a color to go with each song.

music and emotions worksheet for special ed students

A List of Music for Special Education Classes

Looking for some helpful songs and resources for teaching your special ed music classes? Here is a short list of some of the songs my students loved.

YouTube Channels

The Singing Walrus – great songs for older students. The songs are simple, but the music is less baby-ish.

Super Simple Songs – excellent for PreK classes

CocoMelon – there is something magical and mystical about CocoMelon songs. Students are always pulled into the videos. 

Songs for Younger Grades

We Are the Dinosaurs – Laurie Berkner Band

The Goldfish Song – Laurie Berkner Band

Wheels on the Bus

Old MacDonald

The Itsy Bitsy Spider

The Rainbow Song

Logo Te Pate (from Moana)

Colombia, Mi Encanto (from Encanto)

Songs for Older Grades

Rock and Roll version of Jingle Bells

First Snow by TSO – click to view the motions I created on YouTube!

Mary At the Kitchen Door (blues-style folk song)

Looking For More Ideas For Music Class?

Here are some other blog posts you might enjoy.

Movement Activity With Troika by Prokofiev

Five Fun Ways to Teach About Famous Composers

10 Responses

I have a nonverbal autistic son. His language is music and art. I have a few suggestions that helped a great deal. 1. Music for nonverbal autistic kids needs to be in a room that doesn’t have anything else. It needs to be extremely clear what they are there for, otherwise they will get distracted very easily. 2. When giving instruction, do not use verbal communication. Either physically show them or have a video that shows them, make sure there are NO verbal instructions.

3. Music production software is a great tool for teaching music especially piano because the kids can actually see the notes and can visually see how long they are supposed to hold the note. And it introduces them to recording and making songs from scratch.

I have done this with my son and he pretty much teaches himself. We do this everyday and he is now copying music completely by ear. He can pick out the key to any song within a few seconds. He also ended up being an incredible tap dancer.

Another very positive thing that happened is he learned to read. Everytime I would play a song on YouTube, he would remember the title of the video. He then could search for songs he likes, He now knows the names of thousands of songs.

We used the same technique for learning drawing. We just show him a drawing tutorial and he copies what they do.

He plays the glockenspiel, keyboard, drums, congas, bongos and tap dances. He also makes his own hip hop beats. He is currently 13 years old.

I removed him from special education because it was a disaster for him and for many kids because the classrooms are set up for failure. I don’t think most people involved in special education understand just how easily distracted these kids can be.

I hope these suggestions help you.

Thank you for all the great tips! They definitely resonate with me. It has been a major challenge for me to remember to limit (or eliminate) verbal directions, but honestly, now that I am more aware of it, it has helped save my voice and make my directions less verbal in my other classes as well! And thank you so much for mentioning technology. I will have to go in and add a section on that as it is such a useful tool. Great tips all around.

Using both verbal and visual language together, keeping verbal instructions short, integrating kinesthetic practice, and leaving extra time for students to respond verbal cues to should work well.

Thanks Jess! Awesome suggestions!


Thanks! ❤️ I hope that you and your students find it helpful! Reach out and let me know what things worked well in your class. I would love to hear. 😃

How and where do I purchase these wonderful tools for teaching Special Education students? Please, share this pertinent information and I will definitely become a subscriber!

Sincerely, Ruthie Savon [email protected]

Hello there Ruthie! Thanks for reading. The tools I use for teaching Special Education classes come from many places. I usually just make the visual schedules using icons in PowerPoint. I tried to provide links within the article to the YouTube channels and and other sources I used. Let me know know if there is a specific resource you’d like to know about and I can send you in the right direction. The only one that I have available as a product is the sorting cards shown in the post. I have included a link to them here: Instrument Sorting Cards

I am looking for advice. The music teacher in my high school has never taught a high school life skills group. The material she uses is based upon elementary level . What resources are available for providing high school students music education? A non elementary morning song would be nice

This is a great question. I have only ever taught the elementary level so I cannot speak from experience. But off the top of my head, I might use something like the Mooseclumps YouTube channel. It takes pop songs and changes the words to make them about different concepts. Or even looking for some straight up pop songs to teach social-emotional skills (songs like Happy by Pharrell, or Beautiful Day by U2, etc). Then for the other parts of class I might see what kind of adaptive music making they could do using iPad instrumental apps, etc. I hope some of this is helpful! Thanks for the question.

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music in special education articles

Hi, I'm Erin!

I am an elementary music teacher, blogger and mom on a mission to make teaching and lesson planning easier for you. When I’m not working, you can find me at home enjoying life with my husband, daughter and two cats.

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Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: Strategies for Teaching an Adaptive Music Class

It is becoming more common that secondary music educators are asked to take on a class of special education students. This can be cause for some anxiety as it may be difficult to know how to go about teaching an adaptive music class. A number of years ago I was tasked with developing a class specifically for secondary students in a self-contained special education setting that would meet daily for music instruction. Incorporating students with specific learning and developmental needs into a school music program is something I have been able to do successfully since then. A self-contained class such as this can have a wide range of diagnoses and abilities: emotional behavioral disorders; the autism spectrum; and severe disabilities that cause students to be wheelchair bound. These are some strategies I have found to be most effective when going about teaching students with special needs.

Get to know your Special Education team!

The Special Education team in your school is your most valuable resource. Often, the aides that work with these students have been with them for multiple years and know them very well as individuals and can give you insight into their behaviors and things that work well for them in the education setting.  Special Education teachers have the experience of creating lessons specifically for the students on their caseload and can also provide you with ideas and approaches to use.  Aides will almost always accompany students in a self-contained class and can help provide a one-on-one experience for each student.  Learn what kinds of adaptations and accommodations are helpful (or possibly even required) by reading each student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Getting to know everyone who is involved in the Special Education department is the first step in getting to know your students, their needs, and their abilities.

Adapt what you already do to fit the needs of the students

As a band director, teaching music with instruments is what I know best and am naturally most comfortable doing. I teach the basics of rhythm and note reading with world drumming, and move to simple note reading with mallet instruments and Orff arrangements. Boomwhackers are always a fun way to explore and play along with some classical music when learning about composers. Some students are more able than others when it comes to how much playing they can do during class, so finding an instrument that will allow them to participate and contribute is what is most important. This may mean using a shaker or tambourine to simply keep the beat with the rest of the class. Color coding notes with corresponding locations on instruments can help get a student playing. A unit on recorders that uses a limited range of notes can be a great way to work on fine motor skills. 

Be prepared and be predictable

Often, students with special needs rely heavily on a schedule.  Even the slightest upset to the schedule can have the tendency to throw off their entire day. Establishing a routine in class, keeping sensory overload to a minimum, and having a space free of distractions will help students focus. Using visuals to signal what is coming or to aid in understanding a musical idea will help students process. It can be a challenge to know if a lesson you have in mind will work with any particular group. Certain sounds may be a cause for upset, or a lesson just may not engage in the way you hoped it would. Sometimes by trial and error you will stumble on what is really effective with students with various needs. When you find activities that work well for a class, have them accessible for the times you may need to change your plans at the last minute!

Design a music class for all

The approach in teaching an adaptive music class will not be the same as that of a band class. These students may struggle with fine motor development, social skills, or hand-eye coordination. Music may be a means for students to achieve non-musical goals. Modifications to the way an instrument would typically be played can help the student be able to participate more fully. Limiting mallet instruments to one mallet at first while working on simple melodies, allowing the use of both hands to get holes covered on a recorder (as independent movement of fingers may be limited) while working on B-A-G melodies, and helping students learn how to play by practicing movements with them hand-over-hand all can be ways to get them making music.  Basic rhythmic literacy can be achieved with the use of Kodály syllables. Music games that promote cooperation and coordination can be a great way to get students moving and working together. They also may need more time and repetitions to learn, so going slowly with lots and lots of patience may be necessary. Adaptive music should enrich the lives of students with special needs and give them the opportunity to experience, create, and grow through the use of music.

I have found teaching students with special needs to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career. There is so much joy to be found in giving these students an opportunity that may otherwise be overlooked. Small moments can be leaps and bounds for students with special needs--from the initial excitement of being able to play an instrument to the first time a group that struggled with cooperation takes it upon themselves to play an Orff arrangement with no adult direction. I have incorporated self-contained students into my regular band for performances as well as held small concerts to show off what we have been doing in adaptive music for the rest of the student body. Students with special needs want to be able to be like their peers who do not have labels, and our job is to provide them with the best possible musical experience. Music offers us the chance to bring our students together in a way that no other discipline can.

Mallory Merkel

This article first appeared on the DANSR - Vandoren website. Vandoren has been committed to beautiful music through quality, innovative products since the company was founded in 1905. Now in its fourth generation, the Vandoren family continues to craft the highest quality reeds, mouthpieces, ligatures, and accessories in the world and maintains close relationships with the artists, educators, and students who depend on them. Check out their website here . Please view the original article here . 

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Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs & Learning Disabilities

Dr. Alice Hammel remembers when Vinnie started school. He had frequent outbursts and struggled throughout most of his elementary school years; eventually, he was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Dr. Hammel, who is a nationally recognized expert on teaching music to children of all ages with special needs, said Vinnie was unusual in that he could not match pitch – at all.

Then came the answers. It was discovered he had a specific problem, discussed in our recent guest contributor blog on the brain : auditory white noise was interfering with his ability to learn. He underwent intensive therapy, and by fifth grade he went from being the student who could not match pitch to performing a solo in the school concert.

Vinnie illustrates both the challenge and the promise that students with special needs can represent. Dr. Hammel enjoys working with students like him since it gives her the chance to be creative and modify lessons to help all students thrive. She has sought out schools with a high number of students with special needs in general education classes.

“The really fascinating thing is they can appear, or are, brilliant except for that one little, tiny piece that is their disability,” Dr. Hammel said. “We focus on using their strengths and bypassing their difficulty.”

To do this, first there has to be an understanding of the most common types of disabilities and how schools create plans to accommodate students with them.

The Basics: What Is an IEP and a 504 Plan?

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is created for students who:

  • Have a disability as defined by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • Are found to need special education and related services

IDEA covers 13 disabilities, including specific learning disabilities, autism, and certain health impairments.

The process for obtaining and monitoring an IEP involves multiple steps, such as testing by an educational psychologist and meetings with an IEP team that includes the child’s parent or guardian, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a psychologist or other specialist, and a district representative.

An IEP sets learning goals and may include classroom accommodations along with modifications to the curriculum. Here you can learn the difference between accommodations and modifications. Schools receive funding to serve these students.

A 504 plan can be created for a wider scope of special needs and for children who may have one of the disabilities listed in IDEA but do not qualify for special education.  The plans are based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 , which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

This federal law defines a disability as something that substantially limits one or more basic life activities. Students with 504 plans may need accommodations, such as preferential seating, to be successful. Here is a chart that helps explain the differences and similarities between the plans .

Responsibilities of a Music Teacher

All educators should receive the IEPs and 504 plans for students they are teaching each year. It’s important to review them and understand any accommodations, modifications, and goals listed in the documents in order to devise an appropriate special education music curriculum.

If there are any questions, a teacher can contact the IEP team or special education department for help. In cases where an accommodation works in a general education class but not a music class, Dr. Hammel suggests writing to the team. For example, if a student requires preferential seating near instruction, but earns a chair position that would require the student to be towards the middle of a band or orchestra rather than in the front or at the end, a letter may be ordered.

“I would send a note to the IEP team and say a student earned the chair, and ask if it’s okay to deviate from the plan,” Dr. Hammel said.

You also can talk to the team, the special education department, or your supervisor if you need to buy something for an accommodation, such as a special mallet, adaptive devices, or large-print music.  In most schools, there is a special education budget that is separate from the music budget, and you may be able to use those funds for these purchases.

The Most Common Disabilities You May See

The most common disabilities seen in most schools are generally not the ones some people expect. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 34% of the students served by IDEA in the 2015–2016 school year had a specific learning disability (SLD). 20% had a speech or language impairment, 14% had other health impairments, and 9% had autism spectrum disorder. Other types of disabilities, such as a hearing or orthopedic impairment, are less common.

Specific learning disabilities are defined by IDEA as disorders involving “one or more of the basic psychological processes,” which may cause challenges in areas such as reading, writing, and math. Common disabilities in this category include dyslexia which affects reading, dysgraphia which affects writing, and dyscalculia, which is a math disability.

Children with SLDs often have average or above-average intelligence, and their disabilities are frequently considered “hidden” since their challenges stem from the way their brains process information. Students with SLDs learn differently and generally benefit from academic flexibility in the classroom.

Speech and language impairments involve communication challenges, such as stuttering, or verbal comprehension issues. These children often benefit from early intervention from speech-language pathologists.

Other health impairments include acute or chronic health problems that may affect energy levels or attention, such as heart disorders, diabetes, or epilepsy. It may also include students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD).

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that can cause communication, social, and behavioral challenges. Students with ASD often benefit from structure, consistency, and breaks.

Ways to Help Teach Music to Students With Special Needs

Dr. Hammel says music class is a perfect place for students with special needs to thrive because it provides many opportunities for active participation, including the chance to demonstrate ability or progress in ways other than writing, such as singing, dancing, moving, making sounds, or drawing.

“It removes all the barriers and allows students to participate so they can be seen for their strengths rather than their differences,” Dr. Hammel said.

To help this process, there are generally four things Dr. Hammel considers when looking at ways to adapt her music classroom for a diversity of needs. There are a variety of ways to create a special education music curriculum, including:

  • Modality – Giving lessons geared to multiple senses. This includes aural, visual, and kinesthetic instruction. In the same class, you could have a student with an auditory processing disorder who struggles with spoken words and needs visuals, a second student with a visual processing disorder who has the reverse challenge, and a third student who learns best by actively participating.

To address this, in a rhythm lesson, for example, a teacher can verbally discuss and show visuals about rhythm patterns in addition to having the students write down rhythms and clap them.

  • Pacing – Altering the speed at which music is presented or needs to be learned. For example, allow a student to start by only playing a few consistent notes in a song. So, a young student may only play a D or F every time it appears in Mary Had a Little Lamb . Then later other notes can be added. Generally, a student does not need to perform all the notes or measures in a composition to participate in class.

  You can also alter pacing by slowing down the tempo or giving students a longer period of time to learn a composition.

  • Size – Increasing the size of resources to help students with visual processing difficulties. Pepper offers a variety of large-print sheet music that can help with this effort.
  • Color – Utilizing color-coding with erasable highlighters, colored tape, or other tools.

Music activities for special needs students can easily incorporate subject matter that will serve them in other subjects, as well, such as reading through the lyrics of a favorite song to identify unfamiliar words and discussing the songs meaning. Educators can use rhythm lessons to help with students’ speech patterns by having them use a percussion instrument to tap the syllables of their name or a common phrase. There are many resources available to aid with devising special education music lesson plans.

Dr. Hammel also says there are numerous apps to help with various disabilities. These apps can be particularly helpful for music teachers who have students with profound disabilities. Just a few examples are presented in this article from the National Association for Music Education (NAfME).

In the end, though, Dr. Hammel says the most important thing is the classroom atmosphere. She encourages the building of relationships in each class.

“When students get to know all the other kids in the group, they understand there is more that unites than divides them,” Dr. Hammel said.

For more information, Dr. Hammel has created several excellent resources specifically designed for music teachers.   View Dr. Hammel’s books and manuals here.

Other resources:

Children with Exceptionalities: A Special Research Interest Group of the National Association for Music Education

Special Education Law: Wrightslaw.com

Book by Judith Jellison: Including Everyone: Creating a Music Classroom Where All Children Can Learn  

  • Classroom Music

Mary Rogelstad

This is a well-written and informative article. Thank you for posting!

What should I do if the school district is refusing to allow my son, whom has autism, to be a band student? I have an advocate that is fighting for us but this process has been going on all year and they refuse to teach him anything. Instead, he “participates” by hitting his practice pad during that period.

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rhythm reading

/    News Posts    /   Distance Learning for Special Learners in the Music Classroom

By NAfME Member Brian Wagner-Yeung

Many students have been struggling during this time period of COVID-19. While music programs were full of live music-making, ensemble experiences, and performances—music education had to quickly adapt to keep high quality instruction happening, while teaching remotely. In addition, music educators had to find alternative ways to teach musical skills to keep the same level of instruction happening for when students return back into the classroom.

While this time period has been a challenge for all students, families, and educators, students with special needs have had to adjust even more than their neurotypical peers. Students with special needs depend on the daily routines that happen in school environments, socialization opportunities with peers, and having modified or adapted materials presented to them. The change in educational delivery presents a challenge for many students, whether they are learning synchronously or asynchronously.

Music educators must take into account the many areas to help support students with special needs during this unprecedented time. Music educators must be aware of the strengths of their students, as well as areas with room to grow. While it is always important to know this information, especially now music educators should be aware of any information presented in a students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP). Moreover, music educators can adapt their virtual learning platforms to support students with special needs in multiple areas, including: technology support, social-emotional needs, social skills, and continuous musical learning.

Technology Support  

Technology is the key aspect when it comes to distance learning. Whether students are using computers/laptops, tablets, or phones—technology is where instruction is taking place. Moreover, instruction can happen synchronously (students log in and participate in a live virtual instruction), or asynchronously (students log in at their own pace and participate in the instruction, usually pre-recorded or pre-prepared). Whether a teacher prepares their instruction synchronously or asynchronously, it all depends on accessibility with technology.

For students with special needs, technology may become an additional barrier to their learning. While they should always incorporate universal design—which is removing the barriers for all students—educators need to be aware that many students may struggle with technology. Some students are dependent on having adult support or hand-over-hand assistance. However, family members may not always be readily available to assist their children with technology during remote instruction. Music educators need to find ways to break down these barriers to allow students to have access to their education, and hopefully teach them skills that allow them to be as independent as possible with technology.

One example of a barrier to be broken is teaching students (and family members) how to log on or access whichever platform is being utilized. For example, many districts are using the platform Google Classroom. Nevertheless, some districts might require multiple steps for students to log on to access their classes. For students with special needs, this may become overwhelming. Music educators can incorporate step-by-step visual checklists on how to log on. This can help students (and family members) learn this new skill so they can independently gain access to their classrooms. When educators break things down into smaller steps or chunks, this is what is called task analysis . Below is a visual example of how a student could log onto their Google Classroom. (Click to enlarge.)

logging on to Google Classroom

Special education students receive mandated services and accommodations based on their individual learning needs. In a typical special education classroom, many students learn best through hands-on instruction. This can still be done using technology. Some students may be able to complete activities or assignments using a form or survey. Nevertheless, music educators can create interactive assignments for students who learn differently. For example, music educators can create interactive Google Slides, where students can touch and drag different elements on an assignment. Below is an interactive assignment focusing on rondo form from Raiders of the Lost Ark Theme. Here, students have the opportunity to drag the letters below each section to show the form. Other students may have submitted the same assignment by leaving a comment or just writing the letters in. In this example, the activity is differentiated in multiple ways. (Click to enlarge.)

Raiders March

Teachers should also incorporate as many platforms as possible. For example, music educators can create videos on YouTube to help students with different musical activities. When teaching a song or dance with visual supports, teachers can insert images into iMovie with the audio files attached, and then upload the video to YouTube. In this format, students can view the text or visuals in time with the audio without distractions. Below are two examples of the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens. Another platform that can be utilized is Flipgrid. Since many special learners succeed by physically showing teachers a skill they are learning rather than a written assignment, this is a platform where students can submit short video clips of them demonstrating specific musical skills. Students can also respond to classmates’ videos which adds a social element.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight Lyrics
The Lion Sleeps Tonight Dance

Social-Emotional Needs  

It is critical music educators are thinking about students’ social-emotional needs during this time. Many students may be feeling different emotions such as fear, anxiety, or depression. Some students have been affected by COVID-19, whether a family member has gotten sick, or change in home dynamics due to economic challenges. Many special learners may be struggling to grasp why school is now taking place at home, and their daily routine has changed.

One area to help support special needs students is by using social stories. Social stories are a tool typically used for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Social stories are written to teach a way to help replace a behavior, or help individuals adapt to a change in their environment or routine. Social stories will typically have visuals paired based on cognitive level, and areas of interest. Social stories can be implemented for students to understand why they are learning from home, why they are not going to school, or why they need to wear a mask. Teachers can create social stories and share with families to help support students at home. Furthermore, many educators have already created social stories focused on COVID-19. This link has several examples for different age levels .

Special education students thrive when there is a set routine, and when they know what is happening next. While this transition to distance learning has been a huge change in routine, it is important that music educators keep some sort of structure going on at home with students’ musical learning. Music educators can communicate to parents that music class should happen in the same location at home each week. Moreover, teachers should try to follow a consistent schedule each class so students gain a routine. If possible, educators can mimic the flow which would normally happen in person. While changes will definitely be made in the delivery of instruction, by keeping the same flow will help students adjust better. Below is an example of a visual schedule that could be posted for each music class for students to know the order of activities. (Click to enlarge.)

visual schedule for special learners

As mentioned, many students may be feeling new types of emotions due to all of these changes. Educators can take this into account, and use music as a tool to help students cope with these new anxieties. Teachers can carefully choose music and repertoire that can be used as a teaching tool to help students understand that this is a passing phase, and things will eventually get better. One example of a repertoire choice is “Give a Little Love” by Ziggy Marley. This song could be used to help older students understand that while we are going through a difficult time, when we work together, things will get better. Teachers can also use “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley for younger students to help them understand that everything will be alright. (Click to enlarge.)

Three Little Birds song

  Social Skills  

Social skills are another area for students with special needs that should be focused on during this time period. For many students, especially students with ASD, social skills may be an area that is one of their core deficits. Educators regularly practice these skills in person so that students can generalize them and incorporate them into real life settings. Through social skills, many students learn how to interact and engage with peers, develop expressive and receptive language, practice their own method of communication (whether they are able to verbally speak or need to use AAC—augmentative and alternative communication), and learn how to appropriately socialize. Moreover, distance learning can pose a serious threat to students’ social skills, in that the lack of engagement with their peers may cause many students to regress. Music educators need to incorporate social skills opportunities in their remote teaching to keep these skills utilized.

Ive Got a Friend song

A second example is to provide as many virtually fun and interactive experiences as possible. Music educators can create musical themes for each week that can drive music instruction and social skills. One example is having every Friday be called “Fun Friday.” Teachers could take students on a virtual field trip, or plan virtual events like a sing-along or talent show. While this could be fun and motivating, this could also provide opportunities for many students to see their peers and continue to focus on social skills. Teachers can allow opportunities for students to socialize through these fun events, which will in turn allow their social skills to continue to develop.

Continuous Musical Learning

Music educators need to find ways to make sure musical instruction is still happening for special learners remotely. In addition, music educators need to make sure instruction is still differentiated to the individualized level of each student. The goal as educators is to make sure students are still learning, and instruction is kept at a high level for once they return to school buildings.

When focusing on a musical skill, such as rhythm reading, educators can create differentiated sheet music examples on Google Documents. Educators can break rhythm examples into different levels based on a students’ individual learning needs. In many situations, families may now be involved with learning at home, and may know nothing about music. When creating an assignment, teachers should create clear and simple directions for students and families to know exactly what they are supposed to do. In the example below, students are focusing on reading rhythms combining quarter notes, eighth notes, and quarter rests. The directions state what students are supposed to do. When differentiating an activity like this, educators can use traditional notation, color-coded notation, or iconic images. (Click to enlarge.)

rhythm reading

Many students process information based on different learning modalities. Even teaching remotely, educators can provide opportunities for students to interact with each of these modalities. For example, below is a form assignment to the music of “Three Little Birds.” Students can interact with this song in four different ways: students can listen to the music (auditory); students can view the pictures/letters/text to represent each section (visual); students can move to the corresponding dance (kinesthetic); and students can touch the different pictures/letters (tactile). Students are able to engage with the music in their own way while doing so remotely. (Click to enlarge.)

form assignment for Three Little Birds

While remote teaching has presented a challenge for students with special needs, it is up to music educators to find alternative ways for students to interact with music instruction. Music educators can continue to focus on technology supports, social-emotional needs, social skills, and continued music instruction during this time. Once students are able to go back into classrooms, music educators will need to continue to focus on these needs of all students. Nevertheless, educators will rise to the occasion, and provide nurturing support for all students.

About the author:

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July 28, 2020. © National Association for Music Education ( NAfME.org )

April 2024 Teaching Music

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  • Special Education

July 28, 2020. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)


Rhode island music education association recognized with 2024 nafme excellence in advocacy award, nafme awards shannon kelly kane scholarships to tori condra and elizabeth jones of the university of indianapolis, indiana, rep. david scott (ga-13) named recipient of the nafme 2024 music education champion award.

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Music Education for Students with Special Needs

  • David Graham Farnsworth
  • Categories : Inclusion strategies for mainstreamed classrooms
  • Tags : Special ed information for teachers & parents

Music Education for Students with Special Needs

Curricular and Classroom Modifications

Music teachers instructing special learners must implement special teaching strategies and acquire skills in selecting and choosing the proper resource materials for the classroom. Teaching special learners requires patience, intelligence and an understanding of the various student disabilities. It is important to remember that in regards to educational needs, special learners with mild disabilities are more similar than different. Talk to the special learner’s classroom teacher and examine his Individual Education Plan (IEP). (Legally, a music teacher has to follow a child’s IEP specifications like seating the student upfront, extra exam time or other accommodations.) Since the subject of music requires so much comprehension and participation, the teacher must be experienced, gifted and realize appropriate behavioral interventions to produce successful class outcomes. Preparations must be made for curricular and classroom modifications. Multisensory music can be employed as a means for learning facilitation, as well as for reinforcing the achievements of special learners.

While a music curriculum is a valuable school discipline by itself, the feeling, visuals, movement and listening it promotes, fosters psychomotor skills and sensory perception. Singing might trigger conversation, thoughts and feelings for a normally inarticulate child, in addition to help with breathing. Music advances developmental skills for cognitive, affective and psychomotor functions. These are fundamental to master basics in all other academic subjects. The Role of Music in the Education of Special Learners observes: “Unlike activities dependent on verbal interaction, music rarely fails to communicate with every child.” Music teachers must adapt their curriculum, materials and activities to enhance individual performance and encourage at least partial participation in class. Use instruction to supplement basic skills development with an alternate means of reinforcement and refinement. Due to the resourceful and flexible aspects of music, even a single activity allows children of varying abilities to take part.

Effective Hands-on Learning

Remain cognizant that every student learns differently. The emotional immaturity and lack of communication skills of behaviorally challenged students can mask the reality of their high intelligence. It does not mean they don’t understand. Understanding the special learner’s own particular style of communication reigns paramount. Learning hands-on (kinesthetically) generally is effective for most special learners – one simple instruction at a time. If presenting the learner a new idea, give pieces of information all at once to assess comprehension, otherwise he might not see the reason for the activity.

Show how music education can enhance the student’s life. The intent is to master skills and concepts at the appropriate functioning level. Music helps the special learner interact with the community better. The music teacher is a member of a professional community taking part in the decision-making efforts of inclusion: a team who coordinates each child’s efforts to communicate problems and progress. Attendance at special education workshops helps. Foremost, the instructor disregards society’s and various professionals’ labeling of the learning disabled. Overlooking these labels is important when creating instructional strategies. Individual basic skill development inventory is the best way to form the foundation for individual goals.

Implementing and Adapting to Reinforce Music Skills

A good lesson plan idea that helps to advance the capability of learners to decode four-beat rhythms is a 20 to 40 minute reinforcement exercise. Although designed for elementary school students, the lesson is applicable to various age groups. The objective involves students writing the decoded four-beat rhythm on the chalkboard or white board after hearing it – using eighth notes, quarter notes and quarter rests. Materials require only the chalkboard and chalk or white board and wipe-off markers. On the board, the teacher divides a lengthy rectangle into four equal squares. A class member volunteers to go to the chalkboard. The instructor beats a four-beat rhythm with rhythm sticks, after telling the class and volunteer to listen. When repeating the rhythm, the volunteer tries to decode the rhythm by designating a quarter rest, quarter note or pair of eighth notes in the square. If the learner cannot guess the beat, then he may ask a member of the class for help. Applaud when the note is correctly written. If he struggles with the answer, the teacher should play it again or ask another student to assist.

If the chosen special needs student has a hearing disability, you could adapt by using a large bongo or bass drum to beat out the pattern so that they can feel the vibrations on the floor. If they have a physical disability and say are in a wheel chair, then the teacher could give them flashcards to lay across their laps or to hang on the board instead. For those who are more visual and kinesthetic learners, the teacher could write the rhythm on the board or use large rhythmic display cards, and the student could clap, tap or play the rhythm on a percussive instrument. Music can easily be modified for various learning limitations.

Other class exercises or suggestions for adaptation and participation:

  • Playing easy instruments like bells, whistles, drums, triangles, castanets, rhythm sticks and other rhythm instruments can reinforce student achievement.
  • Clapping and singing may achieve the same.
  • To increase comprehension, use display cards that spell out the musical task you want the student to master. Demonstrate the activity while you point to the card. Then ask the learner to attempt the exercise.
  • Let a class member choose a song to sing, and accompany it with instruments or dance.
  • Let a student pick an instrument to accompany a song.
  • Let the student conduct a song.
  • Put together a talent show or a “Name That Tune” game.
  • Find a musical activity the student carries out well and let him develop leadership.
  • Have students perform musical tasks separately – read lyrics or clap a rhythm.
  • If teaching a new song, students can join in on the refrain. Experiment with voice range.
  • Use brilliantly colored visual aids to denote tempo, rhythm, words and notes.

Adaptions an Ongoing Process

Based on the ever changing requirements of individual learners, adaptions are an ongoing process. IEP examination and special education consultations provide learning styles, skills, needs and strengths of special learners. Even students with physical and cognitive impairments can master music skills and concepts with effective instruction. Thus, their classroom experience reaches beyond solely entertainment purposes. It is vital to realize the numerous strategies employed for instructional planning: curricular, behavioral, environmental, presentation, motivational and organizational. Explore different teaching methods that involve increased repetition, practice, hands-on exercises and one-on-one attention for teaching special learners in the music classroom.

  • Essortment.com: Teaching Music to Handicapped Kids, (2011) - http://www.essortment.com/teaching-music-handicapped-kids-50315.html
  • Teachers.net: Lesson Plans #2183. Who Wants to Be a Musician?, Jacskson, Jill, (2011) - http://teachers.net/lessons/posts/2183.html
  • The Role of Music in the Education of Special Learners - http://people.uwec.edu/rasarla/research/mtorg/Adaptive_Music/Role_Music.pdf
  • TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus: An Adaption Tool for Teaching Music, McDowell, Carol, (2010) - http://journals.cec.sped.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1699&context=tecplus&sei-redir=1#search=%22teaching%20music%20special%20ed%22

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music in special education articles

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  • > British Journal of Music Education
  • > Volume 35 Issue 3
  • > Inclusion, music education, and what it might mean

music in special education articles

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Inclusion, music education, and what it might mean.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 November 2018

The issue of inclusion is currently a hot topic in music education both in the UK and elsewhere. There are many discussions about what it means, what it should involve, and how it can be enacted. This is to say nothing of the positive effects inclusion can have on the lives of young people in terms of personal fulfilment, as well as musical participation. For a journal concerned with educational research in music education, as is clearly the case with the BJME , there is, or there should be, more to it, however, than just these simple matters. After all, having children and young people in wheelchairs participating in a musical event is all very well – even if it does not happen often enough - but is this really all we mean by inclusion? And it is this aspect which needs problematisation for music education. After all, having young people who are disabled in some form, visible or invisible, taking part in music education should be something which just happens, we shouldn't need, pardon the phrase, to be making a big song and dance about it!

Inclusion can take many forms, and it is sadly sometimes the ‘feel-good factor’ for the audience which wins out when programming musical events; the nice children with disabilities enjoying themselves singing, the boy in a wheelchair playing a keyboard, the girl on crutches playing a guitar. But these, important as they are, are the tip of a very large iceberg. Music education has contained within it all sorts of exclusory practices which have nothing to do with being physically disabled whatsoever. Let us take as an example the matter of musical taste. In England there is often a cry from music educators that publicly available music examinations, GCSE and A-level, for instance, most benefit those students who play a western classical instrument. Not only that, they privilege students whose socio-economic background is one where they bring with them into the classroom a store of cultural capital. This means that a student who has grown up never having heard classical music, but has, say, a disposition towards playing the drums, and enjoys and succeeds at so doing, is immediately placed at a disadvantage because of their background – an aspect of their life about which they can do nothing. It is not their fault that their background did not involve Mozart and Beethoven, and yet in examination terms they can be inadvertently penalised for this, some would argue.

Which brings us to question what is taking place in educational music teaching and learning situations in schools. Inclusion, as we have argued, is about a wide range of children and young people being catered for. In terms of what is going on in classroom and instrumental music lessons, this is also true, or at least, it can be argued that it should be. The aspect of inclusion we are considering here is that of the inclusion of different types, styles, and genres of music. This is important for the drummer we discussed above. As Michael Young has noted:

The idea that the school is primarily an agency of cultural or knowledge transmission raises the question ‘what knowledge?’ and in particular what is the knowledge that it is the schools’ responsibility to transmit? If it is accepted that schools have this role, then it implies that types of knowledge are differentiated. In other words, for educational purposes, some types of knowledge are more worthwhile than others . . . (Young, Reference YOUNG, Daniels, Lauder and Porter 2008 , p. 13)

This is a question that it behoves us to ask ourselves as music educators, and it is also one that as educational researchers we should be asking too. What types of music are valued? By whom? Who might this disenfranchise? Who cares? All of these are difficult questions, but that does not mean we should shy away from them, far from it.

Which brings us back to inclusion. The American film produce Sam Goldwyn is alleged to have said, ‘include me out’; what are the implications for children and young people who we might feel we have included, but who feel as though they have been excluded? The examples of this with regards to disabled young people are legion, the child with the use of only one arm being told to shake a maraca in time to the music, whilst the rest of the class learn to play the violin, being but one egregious example among many. Visible disabilities need to be catered for properly, sure, and we must put our house in order on this matter. But sometimes in music education we treat social capital – or lack thereof – as a hidden disability, and seem to do very little about it. This is being researched in a variety of contexts and jurisdictions at the moment, and we at the BJME look forward to reading about it in future editions.

Which brings us to the selection of papers in this latest edition. As ever, the articles published in this edition are drawn from music education research from around the globe. They represent some of the wide and diverse contexts in which music education takes place.

The first article in the current edition explores gender perspectives in different phases of music education in Sweden. It argues that there is merit in doing more to understand the relationship between gender and music education.

Following the change of heart by an examination board in England to include female composers in their new A-level specifications (and all brought about from a successful campaign led by 17-year-old Jessy McCabe in 2015), we are pleased to include an article by Dawn Bennett and colleagues that urges music educators to consider ‘the pedagogical practices and curricular design that might support aspiring women composers’.

The third article, from Geoffrey Baker, Anna Bull and Mark Taylor, explores the criticality and methodology of studies relating to El Sistema and other programmes that this has inspired around the world. There are some very interesting arguments thread through this article encouraging the reader to question the worth and value of programme evaluations, and the article concludes that ‘many Sistema evaluations display an alignment with advocacy rather than explorative research’.

Paul Draper and Scott Harrison's article ‘Beyond a Doctorate of Musical Arts: Experiences of its impact on professional life’ explores experiences of Australian students enrolled on a practice-based doctoral research programme in relation to the impact of doctoral study on their professional lives. It further interrogates the conclusion of their previous (2011) research, namely:

. . . that creative and performing artists will increasingly colonize, then dominate their own research space . . . to progress and redefine musical practice . . . less informed by orthodox academic assumptions but more so by authentic practice-led knowledge work.

Through exploring the lived experiences of students, the article also addresses some interesting assumptions found in literature and research in other domains.

Staying in Australia, Leah Coutts’ article ‘Selecting motivating repertoire for adult piano students: A transformative pedagogic approach’ describes her own approaches to motivating adult piano students and how she has been challenged to reflect upon and adapt her own pedagogical approaches and repertoire choices. The concluding suggestions put the relationships between the teacher and student at the heart of motivating and challenging students, alongside prioritising time and space for reflection and a willingness to adapt and develop.

The final article in this issue takes the reader into secondary schools in Singapore. Hoon Hong Ng's article ‘Enabling popular music teaching in the secondary classroom: Singapore teachers’ perspectives’ explores the perceived effectiveness and success of implementing popular music practices in three secondary schools. It identifies a number of diverse factors which were found to enable the delivery of popular music programmes in these schools, and the conclusions will no doubt be of interest to those teaching and working in music education around the world.

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  • Volume 35, Issue 3
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0265051718000219

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The Role of Music Therapy in Special Education

Finding and deploying helpful techniques in special education is an ongoing challenge for special education instructors. Finding techniques that deliver personalized benefits for each individual student enhances the challenge. One of the most successful techniques for a wide range of special education students is music therapy. It encompasses a wide range of teaching options, which helps instructors personalize the therapy for each student. 

It can help to promote communication and sensory inputs. It provides improved fine motor skills and control over movement. It can give students a sense of accomplishment. Universities across the world have a strong belief in the music therapy branch of special education, offering specific classes and degrees in this area.

Parents and instructors who don’t have experience with music therapy in the special education classroom setting may want to explore their options. We will provide information to help you better understand the role music therapy can play with special education students.

Methods of Using Music Therapy in the Special Education Classroom

I have a significant passion for music therapy with special education students. Through personal experience while working as an autism specialist in a large school district in Washington State, I saw first hand the improvement students were able to make. For students who struggle, music therapy can deliver amazing results , helping students gain valuable confidence.

What Is Music Therapy?

Music therapy for students with autism spectrum disorder, music therapy for students with behavioral disorders, music therapy for students who struggle with memorization, music therapy for students with physical disorders.

Instructors of all types, including special education instructors, may use music therapy to help people reach goals regarding wellness, stress management, improved communication, and expression of emotion and feeling, according to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) .

The idea of using music therapy to help people with a wide range of issues dates back to around 1800. Michigan State University offered the first music therapy-associated academic program in the 1940s.

Special Education and Music Therapy

Regardless of the age of the student, music therapy programs can provide benefits. Music therapy appears in early childhood settings, elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.

According to the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation , music therapy has proven effective in multiple areas of special education. Music therapy serves as a creative means of delivering art therapy for children who respond to those techniques. It also works in tandem with other instructional techniques in special education environments.

When working with an educator with certification and training in special education music therapy, students can work toward the goals found in their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) . Music therapists will work in conjunction with other special educational professionals, school administrators, and parents or guardians to add music therapy aspects to the IEP.

Because music therapy is a recognized health profession, it works under the umbrella of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) . This act guarantees that students with disabilities are able to receive a free, appropriate public education experience that meets their unique needs. 

Under IDEA, special education students may receive music therapy instruction for free through the local public school system, as long as music therapy is part of the student’s IEP.

Create an Assessment of Each Student’s Needs

As part of any IEP, school officials and special education instructors must individualize the plan to the needs of the student. When deploying music therapy as part of the IEP, instructors will need to perform an assessment of the student’s needs and goals. This assessment helps the team determine the best path for making use of music therapy.

Music therapists may start by studying any past traumas for the student. The instructor does not want to deploy a type of music therapy that would serve as a trigger for one of the student’s past traumas.

Then the instructor should study the student’s experience with music. Special education instructors should take a look at the student’s aptitude for musical instruments or singing, while also considering the musical preferences and background of the student. Tapping into a style of music or a type of instrument the student already enjoys can create a heightened level of engagement quickly before broadening the offerings.

Finally, the assessment process when using music therapy should be ongoing. Just as with any other aspect of a student’s IEP, instructors need to be willing to make changes in the music therapy plan to meet the student’s current needs. 

When the student is making progress with a certain area of music therapy, creating a greater emphasis in that area or broadening it can be beneficial to the student. On the flip side, if the student doesn’t show meaningful progress using music therapy, it may need to come out of the IEP in favor of a different technique.

Ways to Use Music Therapy in the Special Education Classroom

When attempting to determine the best ways to deploy music therapy in the classroom, instructors must take into account the student’s individual needs. This is the same process that any special education team would use in developing the student’s IEP. Goals and techniques that are part of the IEP must involve individualization. 

Music therapists working in the special education classroom have a number of avenues they can use to try to deliver benefits to the student, including:

  • Other vocal music techniques
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Playing a percussion instrument
  • Free movement
  • Musical improvisation

Some special education students may respond better to things like music composition, songwriting, lyric analysis, or music editing through a computer. Digital music software may be the best way to reach some students. 

Music appreciation classroom work or simply listening to and identifying different styles of music may work well for some students. 

Some music therapy educators may find their students respond best to audio-only stimuli. Other students may have better success when watching an orchestra or musician perform on video while also listening to the performance. They may need both visual and auditory stimulation.

Options to Deploy Music Therapy

Educators may introduce the student to a wide range of musical options, attempting to find what the student is drawn to. Once the educator finds an effective type of music, he or she may branch out to similar styles. 

For example, if a student responds well to drums in the percussion family, the instructor may try to branch out to bells, gongs, cymbals, and various sizes and styles of drums. As another option, a student who has an aptitude for mathematics in the special education classroom may appreciate the ability to study musical composition or to use a music editing software package.

What Music Therapy Is Not

Some schools that don’t have access to a licensed music therapist may consider offering some other music-related activities as an alternative. Understand that as the parent of a special education student working under an IEP, music therapy isn’t the same as other types of musical experiences. 

Schools may offer music classes and experiences that don’t truly fit under the description of actual music therapy. These exposures to music can be beneficial, but they don’t necessarily provide students with the same benefits as certified music therapy. 

For a student diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) , music therapy may help in a wide range of areas, including:

  • Social interactions
  • Communications skills
  • Motor skills
  • Emotional functioning and expression
  • Academic skills
  • Self-regulation skills
  • Coping skills
  • Focus skills

Social skills development seems to work especially well under music therapy for students with ASD. Listening to music with other students helps with attention span and with engaging others in discussions about the music. Students also can learn to work as a team when they are making music together, which sparks communicative and social skill development.

Personalized Techniques

For some students with ASD, music therapy delivers a style of education and instruction that is appealing. These students often will appreciate the structure that comes with learning to read or play music, yet they also can experience the freedom to make their own choices regarding how they interpret or respond to the music.

Musical notes and instruments deliver a sense of consistency that some students with ASD need in their lives. When students use the same fingering technique on an instrument, they receive the same results every time, which can be comforting. 

For students with autism who are non-verbal, music may help them express themselves more successfully. 

Gaining a Sense of Accomplishment

Some children with ASD carry a heightened musical ability. They have a greater aptitude for understanding musical elements. 

Having success with music may give students with autism a greater sense of confidence about school. Being able to do something they love can provide a sense of accomplishment that they may struggle to receive in other areas of their educational and social lives.

Being able to keep up with peers musically can allow students with special needs to participate in mainstreaming during music classes. This can build confidence that may carry into other academic areas. 

Additionally, students often can see tangible progress with musical instruments that may not be as obvious to them in other areas of their academic lives. For example, a student may start out banging on a drum as loudly as possible, failing to keep a tempo or to change the force used to strike the drum to match the composition of the music.

As the student’s skills progress, though, he or she eventually will begin playing the drum at varying volume levels, matching what’s appropriate to the musical composition. The student may adjust speed to match the desired beat. The student may even learn to play several different types of drums.

When the student realizes the tangible improvement made over time, this provides a sense of pride and accomplishment. Additionally, the student will see success in areas like impulse control and self-expression as he or she makes strides with skills in playing the drum.

Helping With Healthy Emotional Releases

Even for students with ASD who don’t have a heightened level of success with musical aptitude, music therapy can deliver benefits that show up in other areas.

For example, students with autism who struggle to release their emotions in a healthy way may learn to do so with music. If the music makes the student feel happy or excited, dancing or singing along can be a healthy way to express these emotions. 

Students with behavioral disorders can also benefit from music therapy techniques. Music stirs emotions, therapists can use different types of music to evoke and cope with various emotions and self-regulation strategies. 

Students who need help with regulation can listen to slow-tempo music with gentle lyrics. Students who need to move physically with some dancing or who need a pick-me-up during the day would benefit from higher-tempo music that has quick lyrics.

Special education professionals appreciate the ability of music therapy to help students of widely varying ages who need help with their behavioral health in areas including:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Mood disorder

Teen-age students and preschool students alike can benefit from music therapy. This is a useful tool specifically for a self-contained classroom where students of varying ages may be together throughout the day.

Preschool students struggling with developing language and hitting milestones similar to peers may find benefits from music therapy. Students who enjoy singing may find an ability to develop beginning language and communicative skills through music more effectively than they do through typical verbal communication.

When students have behavioral disorders related to trauma, music therapy encourages students to become engaged in a safe way. Students can express themselves in the manner that’s comfortable for them, whether that’s verbally through singing, nonverbally through musical instruments, or physically through dancing.

A student with a behavioral disorder who needs help with self-regulation often can develop healthy means of coping through the use of music. Sometimes, the music therapist will use music in the classroom to help a student refocus or to serve as a distraction when the student is struggling with controlling their behavior.

Students who struggle with memorization may also benefit from music therapy. Memorization can be difficult for some students, and these issues may leave them lagging behind peers in some academic subjects.

To help with memorization, music therapists may recommend that students work on memorizing the lyrics of a favorite song or the notes to play on a musical instrument. Some students have more success with memorizing music than with traditional academic subjects. 

The techniques the student uses to improve his or her memorization when it comes to music can migrate over to academic subjects. Students also may become more confident about their ability to memorize items when they have success with music memorization, giving them the boost they need to advance in other areas of the classroom.

Students who need help with developing and maintaining strength and fine motor control often find music therapy beneficial. 

Dancing can be used to create muscle control, while also building strength. Students who may balk at more traditional types of physical education movements, such as running or playing sports, may appreciate dancing as a means of gaining physical fitness.

For students who are unable to stand or walk independently, dancing can happen from a sitting position. Moving the upper body to music can have many of the same benefits as standing and dancing. For students with cerebral palsy, for example, dancing while sitting can improve the motor functions in the extremities, including in the hands, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine .

Help With Fine Motor Skills

The rhythm of music can help students learn to control their motor skills. Students who are able to clap their hands to the music or tap their toes may be able to gain fine motor skills that benefit them in other areas of life.

Even something as simple as learning to hold a drumstick or a rhythm instrument like a castanet can provide significant benefit for a student who struggles considerably with fine motor skills. For students who can handle musical instruments like trumpets or clarinets, learning fingering techniques deliver fine motor skill enhancement. 

Relieving Pain from Physical Disorders

Students who struggle with constant pain related to a physical disorder may find some pain relief through music therapy. Music can help students to feel less stress, which leads to improved muscle relaxation and reduced pain.

Some students simply need a distraction from pain and anxiety. Participation in music therapy programs can deliver this benefit, giving students a means of gaining control over the pain they’re feeling.

Music therapy delivers proven success in many cases. Certainly, music therapy doesn’t work for every student. It may deliver incredible results for one student and only sporadic improvements for a similarly aged student who has similar needs. But music therapy for special education students delivers enough successes in a wide range of situations that it deserves consideration.

For parents looking to spark results through the use of music therapy, consider including goals for this program in the child’s IEP. Schools often already have music therapy available for special education students, either inside the official school setting or through at-home instruction. But when they don’t, parents can suggest working toward implementing music therapy in the special education classroom.

You can also do a quick search for therapists and organizations in your local area. I’ve often been able to reach out and bring guest therapist in by working with my school’s administration and PTA.

I’d love to hear from you! Leave me a comment below or feel free to email me! I’m here to help!

About the author

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Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.


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How Teaching Music To Special Needs Children Can Change Their Lives

music in special education articles

Over the last few decades, there has been a substantial increase in the research concerning music therapy. With the ability to monitor ongoing cognitive activity, entire departments of clinicians and scientists are now dedicated to studying how listening and making music impacts physical and emotional health . Because music is a universal language, able to be interpreted regardless of language barriers, it creates a unique connection. Researchers around the globe are exploring the benefits, influences, and developmental goals that teaching music to special needs children can achieve.

However, many parents and educators are unaware of the startling improvement that both music therapy and music education can have on the lives of children with special needs. By giving these children a powerful tool that can build their communications, motor, and social skills, music training provides an effective way for them to understand themselves, other people, and the world around them.

Regardless of the special need, music has the ability to totally transform lives for the better, because it effortlessly generates a safe learning environment and according to Barbara Crowe, former President of the National Association for Music Therapy (which is now called the American Music Therapy Association), it can bridge the gap “between withdrawal and awareness… isolation and interaction.”

Because listening and performing music stimulates almost every area of your brain, and almost all of your sensory systems, its positive influence on cognitive functions is immense. Instructors who incorporate music into the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IED) introduce concepts and methods that change their lives by fostering self-awareness and self-expression.

Speech and Communications Skills

Music is non-verbal. Imagine that you are lost in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. Something dreadful has happened and you can’t even communicate your need to the helpful residents, which generates feelings of inadequacy, frustration, confusion, and depression. With special needs students, breaking down the barriers of speech through music offers a sense of understanding.

Moreover, when you use specific music for special needs children, it offers an effective way to develop verbal skills. In fact, there are many resources that supply custom music , which is designed to isolate speech sounds or deliver memory and learning aids. Being able to effectively communicate and interact with others also gives children a healthy, positive outlet for their feelings.

Motor Skills

Percussive instruments are particularly effective in changing the lives of special needs students. When a student uses an instrument like a maraca, there is an instant response to an action, and the sound is immediately produced. This is especially beneficial for students who have sight limitations, allowing them to explore physical perceptions and creative experimentation, while simultaneously strengthening their coordination.

The beauty of music participation is the fact that every child can get involved in making music to some degree.

Cognitive Development

By offering a multi-sensory experience, making music engages almost every neurological system. When you create any type of music, even if it’s simply banging a drum to a specific rhythm, both sides of your brain are stimulated.

  • The tactile learning system is involved by touching the instrument and by feeling the sound impulse vibrations that are created.
  • Student’s auditory and visual systems are engaged by listening to the sound and by watching their arm movement as it connects with the instrument.
  • Cortexes involved when playing music are: sensory, auditory, visual, motor, and prefrontal, as well as the cerebellum and the amygdala .

Recently researchers in Finland revealed how just the act of listening to music activates “wide networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.” In the study published in the journal NeuroImage , music “employs large-scale neural networks,” including the limbic area of the brain which is associated with emotion.

Positive Motivation and Social Interaction

Using music for special needs children offers a positive way to motivate behavior . By communicating a question non-verbally, the child is motivated to respond. For example, demonstrating a drum and then prompting the child to make a request, e.g. “I want the drum.”

For social interaction within a small or large group, music is an invaluable tool. Children learn how to take turns, how to listen and respond to another person, and completely participate in an activity. These actions are often an incredible relief for children who have otherwise been unable to contribute to the task.

Music changes lives because it has the power to remove physical and verbal barriers as well as introduce behavioral improvements . These fundamental achievements strengthen the self-awareness and confidence of special needs students and give them effective resources for communicating with others and interacting with the world around them. Learn more about using music for special needs children by reading through the research listed at the National Center for Biotechnology Information , US National Library of Medicine.

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    4. Use the inherent structure in songs to reinforce a sense of internal order. 5. Use rhythm, steady pulse, and basic beat of music as a model to help student to expe rience order, sequence, and a sense of consistency. Gifted and Talented. Music focuses on deeper psychological process and allows creative expression.

  4. Music-based interventions for people with profound and multiple

    Music activity for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities can be broadly divided into: 1. musical education, in which the purpose of music is to teach musical skill (Ockelford, 2008); 2. music therapy in which a trained professional music-therapist uses music as a vehicle for therapeutic benefits (Alder and Samsonova-Jellison, 2017; Thompson, 2019); and 3. social music, in ...

  5. Music Education for Students with Disabilities: A Guide for Teachers

    groups of people involved in the music education of learners with special needs: learners, parents, and music teachers. It is hoped that this resource will be useful in making it possible to include students of all types in American music education programs. Brief History of Special Education in America Special education in America has changed ...

  6. It's a Snap! 4 Ways to Use Music With Special Needs Students

    Here are four music therapist-recommended strategies to use music as a teaching tool in special education. 1. Music + Visual Supports = Increased Comprehension. While music is an effective memory cue and learning modality, many students still perform best when visual cues are paired with auditory stimuli. Using flash cards, song story books ...

  7. (PDF) Music in Schools for Children with Special ...

    Music education and music therapy have long been shown to have benefits for children and young people labelled as having special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEN/D).

  8. Music For Special Education: The How to Guide to Success in Music Class

    And of course we can't forget the musical benefits of music for special education. Learning about concepts such as steady beat, singing, correct use of instruments and all the other musical concepts that you can explore in your class. Remember that for many students, the eventual goal is to mainstream them.

  9. (PDF) Composing Music in Special Education

    This article explores the value of incorporating music composition in a special education classroom and outlines two compositional lessons based on creating a musical scenery. The first lesson ...

  10. Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: Strategies for ...

    A number of years ago I was tasked with developing a class specifically for secondary students in a self-contained special education setting that would meet daily for music instruction. Incorporating students with specific learning and developmental needs into a school music program is something I have been able to do successfully since then.

  11. Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs

    Dr. Hammel says music class is a perfect place for students with special needs to thrive because it provides many opportunities for active participation, including the chance to demonstrate ability or progress in ways other than writing, such as singing, dancing, moving, making sounds, or drawing.

  12. PDF Music Therapy in Special Education

    Music Therapy in Special Education Music therapy is an established health profession that uses the effects of music to achieve non-musical treatment goals. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act* (IDEA)20 U.S.C. §1400 music therapy is recognized as a related service in special education and settings serving students with ...

  13. Distance Learning for Special Learners in the Music Classroom

    Distance Learning for Special Learnersin the Music Classroom. By NAfME Member Brian Wagner-Yeung. Many students have been struggling during this time period of COVID-19. While music programs were full of live music-making, ensemble experiences, and performances—music education had to quickly adapt to keep high quality instruction happening ...

  14. The Social and Cognitive Effects of Music Education on Special Needs

    of a musical instrument in private lessons may be associated with cognitive benefits for special. needs students, including expanded reading and spelling skills, motor skills, and fluid. intelligence.7 Music educators should have a thorough awareness of the cognitive benefits of.

  15. The Power of Music for Children With Special Needs

    Music lessons and neuro-inclusive musical programs can make a huge difference in the life of your special needs child. Our music instructors will work diligently and patiently to help your child with anxiety, discomfort, and pain associated with communication and tasks. Our goal at The Music Room is to help your child improve their coordination ...

  16. Music Education for Students with Special Needs

    The Role of Music in the Education of Special Learners observes: "Unlike activities dependent on verbal interaction, music rarely fails to communicate with every child.". Music teachers must adapt their curriculum, materials and activities to enhance individual performance and encourage at least partial participation in class.

  17. Inclusion, music education, and what it might mean

    As ever, the articles published in this edition are drawn from music education research from around the globe. They represent some of the wide and diverse contexts in which music education takes place. The first article in the current edition explores gender perspectives in different phases of music education in Sweden.

  18. Composing Music in Special Education

    Julia Clipper is a music teacher at the American School in Japan; she can be contacted at [email protected]. Composition is an important and creative part of any child's music education, yet many music educators feel unprepared to teach composition to students with special needs.

  19. The Role of Music Therapy in Special Education

    Finding and deploying helpful techniques in special education is an ongoing challenge for special education instructors. Finding techniques that deliver personalized benefits for each individual student enhances the challenge. One of the most successful techniques for a wide range of special education students is music therapy. It encompasses a wide range of teaching options, which […]

  20. How Teaching Music To Special Needs Children Can ...

    Using music for special needs children offers a positive way to motivate behavior. By communicating a question non-verbally, the child is motivated to respond. For example, demonstrating a drum and then prompting the child to make a request, e.g. "I want the drum.". For social interaction within a small or large group, music is an ...

  21. Use of Music in Special Education and Application ...

    1. . Department of Fine Arts, Faculty of Education, Uludag University, Görükle/Bursa Türkiye . Abstract. Music, as in the case of every indiv idual, is an essen tial element which makes life ...

  22. A Record Number of Kids Are in Special Education, But Teachers Are in

    A record 7.5 million students accessed special-education services in U.S. schools as of 2022-2023, including children with autism, speech impairments and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder ...

  23. Virginia Senate fails to act on changes to military education benefits

    RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia Senate has failed to take up a bill to exempt some military families from pending changes in eligibility for a state program for educational benefits at state public colleges and universities.. Facing an uproar from military families, Gov. Glenn Youngkin had asked lawmakers to tweak portions of a recently signed bill that would have prevented some from ...

  24. Del Mar Times

    Del Mar news featuring local news and events, discussions, announcements, photos and videos.

  25. Music Education for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder in a Full

    Documenting educational practices and elucidating the beliefs of stakeholders (including music educators, the special education team, administration, and parents) regarding music education for students with ASD in an inclusion setting may offer insights into best practices while interrogating perceptions regarding unique benefits for this ...

  26. Virginia lawmakers to hold special session on changes to military

    The Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program waives tuition for survivors and dependents of veterans killed or seriously disabled while on active duty. Gov. Glenn Youngkin and lawmakers made changes to eligibility for the program in the two-year budget set to take effect on July 1.

  27. Carr's Beach Reunion pays tribute to music, community

    That history is a music history that most cities would kill for," Buckley said. ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Rhythm and blues beats bounced over the Chesapeake Bay as part of a special beach reunion.

  28. Apple's 2024 Back to School Sale Launches, Up to $150 Gift Card With

    Apple has launched its annual Back to School promotion for college students in the United States. This year's promotion offers a free Apple gift card with the purchase of an eligible Mac or iPad ...

  29. WSSU's nursing program named among best for adult learners

    Among the criteria, WSSU's Division of Nursing was selected because it is designed to meet the needs of adult learners managing busy schedules while pursuing their nursing education, Abound said. WSSU's program focuses on making a nursing degree accessible, affordable and fast, helping students achieve their academic and career goals.

  30. Teaching Students with Disabilities: A Review of Music Education

    This article explores trends in research since the 1975 passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), notes gaps in the literature, and offers suggestions for future directions music education researchers could take in exploring the needs and experiences of music teachers and their students with disabilities.