Using music in everyday SEN


Emma Kenrick on the benefits of music for SEN.

We all have unique connections and associations with music. Music is present from the beginnings of life in our earliest mother-infant vocalising interactions. Music has the power to bring about similar physical and emotional responses in different people at the same time. It is capable of both intensifying a certain emotion and coordinating the way in which a group of people should move together (we’ve all done the Macarena at some stage). Music can express, articulate, and channel feelings that cannot be put into words, bypassing the need for language, and it is this part of music that is invaluable, particularly when working with pre-verbal or non-verbal communities. 

Through observing and participating in music therapy sessions, staff that I work with in SEN settings often notice how live musical play can evoke intentional communication and motivate responses in children who may otherwise struggle to express themselves. The experience of live music-making within a responsive, familiar relationship, attuned to a person’s sounds and gestures, can be extremely beneficial for development. Unlike recorded music, live musical interaction can draw out a person’s voice and personality, enabling SEN staff to respond in the moment to the quality of the individual’s engagement. 

A question often asked is how music therapy is different from music lessons. The main difference is music therapists don’t teach people how to play an instrument or piece of music. Music Therapists are Allied Health Professionals, registered with the HCPC and music therapy is an established psychological clinical intervention. Music Therapists draw upon the innate qualities of music to support people at all stages of life; from supporting new-born babies develop healthy bonds with their parents, to offering sensitive and compassionate palliative care at the end of life. Music offers an anchoring thread in which a person is free to explore their sense of self.

This article aims to look at how you can equip yourself with basic musical tools to support communication, learning, motor skills and emotional expression when working with people with SEN.

Social Interaction and Communication 
Not everyone considers themselves a singer, but we all have a voice and we all can sing. Singing can be used in SEN to attune, match, mirror sounds or vocalisations to reinforce or bring awareness to an individual’s voice. Using familiar songs can be a simple way to stimulate speech. Choosing a song that is meaningful or enjoyable for an individual and leaving gaps at the end of a phrase can motivate phrase completion. 

A simple turn taking activity using a small instrument, such as a shaker or bell can encourage social interaction. Use a melody that is familiar to you and change the lyrics to instruct others to pass an instrument around the group (e.g. changing lyrics of ‘Comin round the mountain’ to ‘Susie pass the bells to Mohammed’). This offers opportunity to observe many different skills including gross motor skills; passing the instrument around the group, memory skills; can they listen and remember the instructions in the song and learning skills; how long can they focus and listen until their turn.

Cognition/Learning Skills
We have all used music at times to help us concentrate, motivate ourselves or learn. Music can support attention and focus, enhance short term and working memory and provide opportunities to encourage decision making and planning. It can also increase motivation for learning by making it fun! Songs and sound cues can be used in classrooms to promote connection and understanding of the daily routines. Music can be used to reinvigorate lessons and reset attention. Musical cues for different subjects or using songs for targeted learning can be an amazing tool to enrich learning and increase chances of successful remembering. All those jingles you have in your head from TV or radio can be put to good use by making up words to go with them and using them as sound cues for different parts of the school day.

Physical/Motor skills
Rhythm is everywhere around us and within us e.g. our heartbeat, footsteps, language. Using melody and rhythm can support to target and reinforce gross and fine motor skills as well as supporting balance, coordination and control of movements.

By maintaining a steady beat on a drum, attuned to an individual, it can support connection to bodily rhythms, regulate and even synchronise movement to rhythm or pulse. By matching, rhythm can reinforce a movement. This can also be done using body percussion; tapping knees, clapping, clicking fingers, stamping feet. 

Another simple idea to support fine motor skills is using music to guide drawing. Following the melody line of instrumental music, such as pieces by Einaudi, can provide a lovely way of both encouraging expression through drawing and a means of relaxation.

Emotional wellbeing 
We have all had the experience of music influencing our mood, either reinforcing or clashing with our experience of an emotion. Music can be used to explore individual emotional expression and creativity. It can be a safe medium to explore more difficult emotions and can be used to learn about self-regulation. This can promote a level of self-awareness and therefore increase self-esteem and confidence. 

Emotional identification can be difficult. Offering a means of distinguishing emotions through music can provide a different and motivating way to develop this skill. Musical activities such as applying feelings to different instruments, e.g., the angry drum, the happy bells, and singing a song about guessing the feeling can support in establishing how different emotions may sound. Using pictures, such as an emoji feelings chart, can also assist understanding. This could be adapted, using characters in a book, with different feeling states reflected in the story and supported with a musical accompaniment e.g. Winnie the Pooh.  

Creating playlists can be an effective way to both learn about an individual and provide a means of energising, relaxing, motivating or supporting concentration. Music preference is personal so finding what works and connects with an individual is very important. A relaxation playlist should include music that is predictable, steady in pulse and may have repeating themes or sections. If you want to motivate, you want music that holds your attention with patterns that you connect with and make you want to move.

At the school where I currently work each class has an iPod that has been uploaded with children’s nursery rhymes, Disney songs and classical music. The iPod Pharmacy is a scheme whereby people donate their old unused iPods to Chiltern Music Therapy. These are then reconditioned and uploaded with personalised music for music therapists to loan out to their clients as needed, to support with a range of aims including reducing agitated behaviour, increasing arousal, and supporting emotional regulation or relaxation. For children with sensory and/or noise sensitivities this has provided a safe opportunity to practice building up tolerance to wearing headphones whilst listening to music. How and when a child listens to music is flexible according to individual needs. I also placed an iPod in a quiet corner of the staff room where teachers could spend some time listening to music during breaks. This can provide much-needed relaxation and time-out from hard work and hectic schedules. Music can provide support for staff as much as it can for individuals we work with. 

Musicality is fundamentally innate and is such a unique human trait. We all have connections and feelings around our own musicality. But using it can open channels of communication and expression that you may not have realised possible. So go forth and sing and play like no one is listening!

Emma Kenrick
Author: Emma Kenrick

Emma Kenrick
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Emma Kenrick is a Music Therapist and flautist working in a variety of settings across London.

She gained her MA in Music Therapy from Guildhall School of Music and Drama and BMus (Hons) in Music Performance from TU Dublin Conservatoire.



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