Special voices


How singing can help children with SEN to become more confident in all areas of life 

As the educational and social benefits of singing and musical activity within primary schools have become better understood, and levels of funding in this area have increased, there has been a move to extend this enthusiasm for singing to children and their leaders outside mainstream education. The impact that well-planned singing activity can have on children with SEN is far reaching, with significant gains reported in self-esteem, confidence, motivation and social interaction. Yet research has shown that, though there are pockets of excellent work, the national picture is disparate. Increased awareness of the benefits of singing for a group of children who often find it difficult to engage, and improved training and resources for those working in the area, should, however, increase the use of this valuable learning tool.

Over the past year, Sing Up, the national singing programme, has partnered with fourteen projects nationwide to work on singing programmes for children with SEN, including those with autism and profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). These have included a Plymouth Music Zone project for children with PMLD, which used vocal looping technology to help engage with children unable to use their voices, and a project at Mulberry Bush in Oxfordshire, a school that provides therapeutic care, treatment and education for children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties. All of the fourteen projects reported highly positive outcomes, with each of the project leaders documenting that the children involved were either “much better” or “better” at the end of the programme in terms of confidence and self-esteem, enjoyment and motivation, achievement and pride, and social interaction.

Those working with children with SEN often remark that such projects not only improve confidence when singing, but confidence as a whole, with children becoming clearer and more assured at stating their own needs and sharing their thoughts with others. Teachers have found that restless or disruptive children are able to concentrate on singing for extended periods of time, and that this is often reflected in the rest of their school life. And it was not only those working with children who observed this progress; in many cases, the children also observed a change in themselves.

Singing is a highly social activity. The improvements that singing can have on social interaction are highlighted by the work at Mulberry Bush in Oxfordshire. Here, links with a local mainstream primary school meant that the children were able to form positive relationships, especially with those who were brought in as singing mentors to help lead the group. The project reveals the way in which signing can help to act as a leveller between those outside and inside mainstream primary education, often providing a confidence boost to children with SEN when they discover that they are just as capable at singing as their mainstream peers.

Of course, singing also improves another key skill: singing. There is a healthy debate among those who use singing in schools as to whether the prime purpose of singing should be to improve confidence and self-worth, or whether activity should focus more specifically on musical achievement. While I believe we must address both sides of this debate, if singing for children with SEN is to achieve its full, incredibly powerful potential, it needs to move beyond simply “joining in” and focus on improving singing standards as a learning and performance discipline. The fact is that pupils on the SEN register, who may never be top of the class in terms of literacy or numeracy, can really blossom through singing as their confidence grows.

Singing standards and goals need to be tailored to the children in question. An innovative programme conducted by Plymouth Music Zone focused on a group of children with PMLD, many of whom could not use their voices. They developed a resource, the Zoobiedoo, and used vocal looping technology to help engage the children they were working with, with significant success. One teacher reported that despite one child being previously unable to use her physical voice, on hearing a song from the Zoobiedoo, she began singing and doing all the actions that they had been associating with the song. This is a clear example of a child with profound special needs being able to comprehend and enjoy music at a higher level than anyone had previously imagined possible.

However, in order to achieve a greater push for the use of quality singing practice in special needs education, workforce development is key. Our findings highlight that, although teachers with no previous experience with singing may initially lack confidence, this can easily be turned around with the right support, and enthusiasm and dedication for singing are vital for success. Large workloads and time constraints can make it hard for teachers to set aside enough time to focus on professional development for singing leadership. Gaining the support of senior management and headteachers is vital here, as they will need to recognise the value of such training and support staff to develop their skills and confidence in singing leadership further.

Central to the success of many singing projects is the establishment of partnerships. Music organisations who want to become involved in SEN projects will need to work closely with local authority or voluntary organisations who are already connected with the sector. And, in the case of staff who do not have musical experience, partnerships with music organisations will be central to workforce development. In each case, joint planning, engaging in constant dialogue, reporting back on sessions, and co-mentoring each other in relevant skills will greatly contribute to the success of a singing project.

While executing singing activities may take time and planning, the results should not be underestimated. Singing is one of the best ways to engage primary-aged children, and the responses and development of the young people involved will really make any hard work worthwhile. Support and guidance is available to those teachers, social workers and carers who wish to share the joy and benefits of singing with the children that they are working with.

Further information

Baz Chapman is Programme Director at Sing Up, the National Singing Programme. For more information about singing in schools, training and singing development, visit:

This article was first published in issue 47 (July/August 2010) of SEN Magazine.

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