How Music Improves Learning for Special Needs Kids
And which resources are available in the region
In almost every culture around the world, music plays a central role in bringing entire communities together, whether to help people celebrate special occasions, make memories or simply pass the time. In fact, U2 lead singer Bono once said, “Music can change the world because it can change people.” Music is a universal language because it removes physical and verbal barriers.
Over the last few decades, there has been a substantial increase in research concerning how music therapy can also improve behavioral traits. Clinicians and scientists are studying how the acts of listening to and making music can impact a person’s physical and emotional health, while monitoring his or her ongoing cognitive activity. What they have found is that because listening to and performing music stimulates almost every area of the brain — and almost all sensory systems — music has a significant positive influence on cognitive functions.
The National Endowment for the Arts published research in December 2015 titled, “The Arts in Early Childhood: Social and Emotional Benefits of Arts Participation,” that shows promising implications for parents of special needs children. Let’s tune into some of music’s many benefits, particularly when it comes to how special needs children learn.
The Great Equalizer
According to Arts Access, an organization that was founded in 1982 to address this issue by increasing access to North Carolina’s arts community for children and adults with disabilities, kids with disabilities do not participate in the arts at the same rate as kids who don’t have disabilities, largely because they have fewer opportunities to do so, compared to nondisabled peers. Arts Access Executive Director Betsy Ludwig cites the organization’s Wake Arts Inclusion Project as one of the many ways it is working to ensure that music educators in Wake and Durham counties’ public school systems have the tools and skills they need to better include school-age kids with disabilities.
“Music education is good for all kids’ social and emotional development, as well as educational outcomes,” Ludwig says.
Music therapy helps special needs kids build self-confidence and awareness, and improves their communication, motor and social skills, according to the Masters in Special Education Program Guide, which offers information for special education professionals. Music therapy also gives them effective resources for interacting with and understanding their environment. Essentially, it is the great equalizer, leveling the playing field for many kids who may not otherwise thrive in a traditional learning environment.
Rebecca Smith, director of the Frankie Lemmon School & Developmental Center in Raleigh, says the school’s music therapy sessions, offered three to five times a week, often provide the first opportunity for staff to witness children who can’t otherwise communicate with their teachers. These sessions really engage children to participate in teacher-directed activities.
“Music therapy has greatly benefited many of our children,” Smith says. “Our music therapist works on so many developmental skills during her sessions, but the children don’t even realize how hard they are working because they are having so much fun.”
Parents agree. Amy Klabon, whose son has developmental disabilities and attends the Frankie Lemmon School & Developmental Center, says the center’s music sessions offer a sound-sensory experience that has made it easier for her son to learn and grow.
“There’s a connection between movement and speech when these kids interact with musical instruments like the tambourine, drums and maracas,” Klabon says. “Song and music engages him, holds his otherwise short attention span and allows him to get his energy out.”
The interactive nature of playing instruments while singing makes it easier for special needs kids to learn traditional songs like “Ring Around the Rosie” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Even focusing on the difference between a yellow tambourine versus a blue drum has taught these children colors and shapes.
The Chemistry of Music
Studies highlighted in publications such as Psychology Today and Nature have looked at the link between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and music. Researchers are not surprised to learn about music’s benefits for someone with ADHD. Since music is enjoyable, it can improve multitasking, adherence to structure, collaboration, auditory processing and self-confidence.
Experts also know that kids with ADHD tend to have low levels of dopamine, a chemical released by neurons (nerve cells) to send signals to other neurons. These experts are now discovering that music is a stimulant that actually increases dopamine levels, which might account for the sense of pleasure people experience while listening to music.
For some professionals in this line of work, engaging special needs children through music not only gives them personal satisfaction; it’s also a way of giving back. In 2010, two years after losing his construction business to the financial collapse of 2008, Robert Peele started Center Stage Music School in Garner, which serves roughly 140 students ages 5 and older, and offers guitar, violin, voice, drums and piano lessons. Peele says about 5 percent of his students are special needs children with either autism, ADHD, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. He says oftentimes special needs kids excel in music more than their peers do because they see patterns the other kids don’t.
“Music is math,” Peele says. “We have, basically, 12 notes and eight beats. Drumming, for instance, is a rhythmic pattern.”
Many kids with autism seek out visual and/or auditory patterns. Peele works with the kids who are drawn to auditory patterns.
“Do we treat them any differently? Absolutely not,” Peele says, adding that, in fact, the opposite is true. The very reason parents enroll their special needs children in music is because it provides a sense of equality and normalcy that other extracurricular activities don’t.
Center Stage Music School offers two recitals a year and puts its students in bands and competitions around the area.
“Competition breeds excellence and advances the art form. There is no question about this,” Peele says. “I’ve seen it firsthand at dance, cheer, gymnastics, martial arts and all types of sports competitions. Children with developmental and even physical challenges can participate, compete and do as just as well as any other child. … If I put one of my autistic kids on a drum set, keyboard, guitar or even up front on the mic, you would be hard-pressed to tell them apart from any other.”
Peele says he could not ask for a more fulfilling job. “I wish I’d started doing this 20 years earlier,” he says. “When I’m playing with one of my autistic kids, the entire world outside doesn’t matter. They have no preconceived notions about what the music is supposed to sound like, their inhibitions are gone and they don’t care who is listening. We are all just in the moment and it is pure, unadulterated joy.”
Elizabeth Lincicome is a communications expert and freelance writer based in Raleigh. She is also the mother of a 6‑year‑old daughter.
Music Resources for Special Needs Families
Center Stage Music School
889 U.S. 70 Highway W., Garner • 919-662-5433
This school offers private music lessons for ages 5 and older in bass guitar, guitar, violin, voice, drums and piano. Lessons are available to individuals with and without disabilities.
United Arts Council
410 Glenwood Ave., Ste. 170, Raleigh • 919-839-1498
Through its existing Artists in Schools program and a partnership with Arts Access, United Arts was able to identify and highlight six programs specifically designed for students with special needs during its pilot year (2018-19). These curated programs give schools a way to narrow down options that best work for a particular class. For example, Drum for Change (see below) uses soft-sound drums so kids who have special sensory needs can fully participate. The United Arts Council is looking for community sponsors for its Artists in Schools program. If you are interested, please email or contact a staff member via the website.
Drum for Change
email@example.com • 919-696-0883
Drum for Change Director Greg Whitt believes life is richer when we communicate, cooperate and collaborate with one another and the world around us. To that end, he has been facilitating interactive rhythm experiences to help people live, work and play well together since 2002. Whitt is the recipient of three United Arts Council competitive professional development grants, and he helped spearhead a program that puts artists in the workplace. Whitt works with a wide range of individuals, including students with intellectual disabilities, autism, vision loss and emotional disabilities.
Frankie Lemmon School & Development Center
3311 Carl Sandburg Court, Raleigh • 919-821-7436
The Frankie Lemmon School & Development Center offers a curriculum for ages 3-6 that is designed to encourage growth in all areas. The curriculum is designed for children with and without special needs, and focuses on the following developmental areas and subjects to reflect the development of the whole child: social-emotional, fine motor, early learning, self-help, gross motor, science, technology, math and communication. Among its programs, the school offers music therapy, movement class, pet therapy, and language and communication group sessions.
Lucy Daniels School
9003 Weston Pkwy., Cary • 919-677-1400 • firstname.lastname@example.org
The Lucy Daniels School, a program of the Lucy Daniels Center, is a therapeutic day school serving children in preschool through fifth grade who are experiencing social, emotional or behavioral difficulties at home or in school. The center helps children lead emotionally healthy lives through in-depth evaluation and treatment, family involvement and education. Music on Fridays is offered 9-9:30 a.m. as part of the center’s focus on helping children develop and strengthen their capacities to be members of a group, while also building their individual academic and social development.
Camp Bluebird at 3 Bluebirds Farm
102 Hyannis Dr., Holly Springs • 919-629-7500
Camp Bluebird is an individualized track-out day camp for elementary school-aged children with autism that uses music and singing as part of their circle time. The camp is part of 3 Bluebird Farms, which serves adults on the autism spectrum.