How music can help children with SEN to engage with mainstream learning.
Children with SEN often find the classroom to be a tough and uncomfortable environment. Many struggle with concentration, while others find it difficult to write or express themselves. These challenges inevitably affect their engagement with, and understanding of, mainstream learning. As a result, teachers are looking beyond traditional methods to help these children to engage within the classroom. One significant discovery has been the extremely positive results music can have on children’s learning capabilities. By using music, pupils are taught new skills they can utilise throughout the curriculum, and it can also enhance their communication abilities, language, focus, independence and confidence.
There are many arts engagement programmes that provide children with SEN with opportunities to experience music. These programmes can be particularly beneficial for those with hearing and visual impairments, those with behavioural difficulties or those with conditions such as autism and ADHD. Well-managed programmes can help these children to express themselves without fear of failure.
The power of performance
In 2011, The Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts introduced over 1,000 pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in Cardiff to the power of live classical music through a project called MusicQuest. This project enabled the pupils to experience a live performance by The Philharmonia Orchestra at their local arts venue whilst also introducing them to the art of singing and performing themselves. A few weeks before the concert, teachers were shown how to teach their students a song called Bamboozled. After weekly rehearsals in the classroom, all the schools joined together to perform the song, accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Working towards an exciting goal, and singing within a group, helped increase the pupils’ confidence and social interaction skills, and many of them were clearly proud to perform something they had learnt themselves. The project gave the children opportunities to express themselves in different ways, learn new skills and explore their creativity. The majority of these pupils had no previous exposure to music and after rehearsing their song in class and hearing the orchestra play, many said they felt happy and excited, so it was clear that the music had affected them emotionally and psychologically. The exercise of learning to sing and perform also helped teach the children discipline, which then had a positive impact on their behaviour in the classroom. Teachers also noted that pupils’ new-found confidence had been translated to other subjects in the curriculum, and pupils’ focus had significantly improved.
Communicating through music
Music can be important for providing children with communication or language difficulties with opportunities for non-verbal expression, helping them to communicate more freely. For these children, music can be a fantastic tool for expressing feelings, emotions and moods. Approaching music in terms of creating an atmosphere is an exciting alternative to establishing melodies and rhythms, which some pupils can find difficult. For many of these children, it can be very useful to use music to create a soundtrack for an image or for a situation, perhaps based on a story or poem. For example, The Listeners by Walter de la Mere works particularly well for conjuring up a frightening picture of a haunted house. Teachers can use this poem to open up all sorts of questions, such as what would the Traveller have found if, instead of riding away, he pushed the door of the house and found it to be open? Children can then experiment with various instruments to see what sorts of sounds they can make, and can work together in groups to see if they can find effective ways to combine these sounds and make a short musical composition.
Warming-up to music
Music warm-up games in the classroom can also help pupils understand how to work together in a group, keeping them focused and aware of others. They can hone musical, vocal and ensemble skills and encourage creativity. The great thing is that they are usually a lot of fun as well, which means that participants lose their inhibitions and are able to develop key skills more quickly than they might otherwise do.
Passing a clap around a circle is a simple exercise that helps students understand the notion of control and the need to work together as an ensemble. Throughout this exercise, pupils practise watching carefully and honing movements to match the rest of the group.
To start with, the group should form a circle, around which a clap is passed from one person to the next. The result should be a regular pulse, with no speeding up, slowing down or irregularity. For this to happen, participants need to keep an internal pulse and be ready and focused for their turn. This warm up can be varied by using an instrument to play a pulse which the children then follow, clapping in a circle as the instrument gradually changes tempo. It can be further varied by adding in a stamp which is passed in the opposite direction to the clap.
Encouraging children to experiment with sounds and volume is another way to ignite their creativity. A simple exercise is to get the children to clap loudly and to clap really quietly. They can experiment with making sounds like the rain falling very gently by drumming their fingertips on the table or floor, and then building to a storm with louder rain using their hands. They can experiment with making loud and soft wind noises, or quiet and loud roars. Teachers can tie these exercises in with books that they are reading in class and have the children make the sound effects. This can help the children engage further with subjects like English and really bring the story to life.
Music is a powerful way to help children explore the world around them, and can open up subjects and ideas for those who struggle to understand them through more traditional teaching methods. Learning, performing and experimenting with music can encourage children to enhance their communication skills. Music can also help children to develop their confidence in the classroom and give them a sense of pride that they have produced something on their own.
Jeremy Newton is CEO of the charity, The Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts: