Music is powerful. It can affect one’s mood, invoke memories of a specific event, motivate activity, and more. Educators have been using music successfully within the mainstream classroom for decades as a means of engaging students in classroom activities. However, music can also be a powerful tool for students with special needs. Many schools are incorporating music therapy as part of the curriculum plans for this demographic. In fact, research has shown that music has therapeutic benefits in restoring, improving, and maintaining mental, psychological, and physiological health.
Why is music so important for students with special needs?
Music improves comprehension.
By itself, music can be an effective memory cue. However, pairing music with visual cues can be particularly powerful for students with special needs. Using flash cards, digital books, or physical gestures can increase a student’s comprehension of a song. Harnessing the power of music helps students anchor specific facts or events, thus enabling them to comprehend a lesson easier than if it were presented as a lecture.
Music removes the distractions and allows the student to focus on the sounds—both the instruments and the lyrics. This instant learning boost can help students feel confident, thus making them more apt to continue their engagement in the classroom. This creates a positive snowball effect that leads to greater student achievement.
Music engages students in learning.
Using familiar and favorite songs as a teaching tool can increase student engagement in the classroom. For students with special needs, who may be difficult to engage or who have limited interest in learning, highlighting lessons and information using familiar songs can have great success.
One way to include popular music in a lesson is to pass out copies of the printed lyrics. Reading the lyrics out loud, identifying unfamiliar vocabulary, discussing the meaning of the song, and finding key words all benefit student learning. After listening to the song, students can write about the themes found in the song, discuss their feelings after hearing the song, and more.
Younger students with special needs can identify pictures that relate to the song. These children can identify images of actions, characters, or themes that are prevalent in a song and can use the visual cues to help them remember the words.
Music helps order the classroom.
Many special education experts agree: a student with special needs requires an ordered classroom experience. Often, these professionals are referring to the student’s visual environment. In recent years, however, educators have discovered that music helps students order their environment as well.
Students with special needs often become overwhelmed by verbal commands. Dialog, outside interference, and other sounds can confuse them. As a result, they often have difficulty filtering out the important information.
Music can provide cues that help filter out excess noise and direct the student’s focus toward the activity at hand. For example, the rhythm in a song can emphasize important words, get the body in sync with an activity, and add cadence to what the teacher is saying.
Chanting is an excellent example of how music can help direct a student in an activity. Through the chant, students know exactly what they are supposed to do. By tapping syllables, the student can keep the correct pace for speaking, learn how to use vocal intonations to communicate, and more.
Music leads to generalization of learning.
By setting information to an easy-to-remember tune, students can learn their name and address, the states and capitals, and other useful lists of facts. This can be a great way for students to initially memorize important information. Teachers can help students transition from singing to speaking these facts in the following ways:
---When the song is over, ask questions about the content of the song. (Who, what, where, when, why are all good starting points to find out what students remember).
---Use visual components of the song during non-music time. If the class sings a song about washing their hands, teachers can use pictures from the song to cue students to wash their hands during the day.
---Find ways to incorporate lyrics throughout the week. Teachers can use a song about lining up, for example, to let children know when it is time to line up. Over time, teachers can gradually transition the lyrics from a sing-song voice to a spoken voice. In time, students will be able to recite the information they’ve learned, instead of singing it.
Through music, students with special needs can engage in new ways. They can have ownership over the songs they hear, the rhythm that they feel, and the way that music helps them in the classroom. For classroom teachers who are struggling with inclusion, finding ways to incorporate music into a lesson plan can be an effective way to reach across abilities and connect with every student.