Music Education Advances Special Learners' Basic Skills

By David Graham Farnsworth

Music helps exceptional children learn how to process and react to sensory stimulation. Learners incorporate and synthesize concepts that relate to all of the arts. How do you go about teaching music to special learners and what adaptations can be made to accommodate them?

Curricular and Classroom Modifications

Music teachers instructing special learners must implement special teaching strategies and acquire skills in selecting and choosing the proper resource materials for the classroom. Teaching special learners requires patience, intelligence and an understanding of the various student disabilities. It is important to remember that in regards to educational needs, special learners with mild disabilities are more similar than different. Talk to the special learner's classroom teacher and examine his Individual Education Plan (IEP). (Legally, a music teacher has to follow a child's IEP specifications like seating the student upfront, extra exam time or other accommodations.) Since the subject of music requires so much comprehension and participation, the teacher must be experienced, gifted and realize appropriate behavioral interventions to produce successful class outcomes. Preparations must be made for curricular and classroom modifications. Multisensory music can be employed as a means for learning facilitation, as well as for reinforcing the achievements of special learners.

While a music curriculum is a valuable school discipline by itself, the feeling, visuals, movement and listening it promotes, fosters psychomotor skills and sensory perception. Singing might trigger conversation, thoughts and feelings for a normally inarticulate child, in addition to help with breathing. Music advances developmental skills for cognitive, affective and psychomotor functions. These are fundamental to master basics in all other academic subjects. The Role of Music in the Education of Special Learners observes: “Unlike activities dependent on verbal interaction, music rarely fails to communicate with every child." Music teachers must adapt their curriculum, materials and activities to enhance individual performance and encourage at least partial participation in class. Use instruction to supplement basic skills development with an alternate means of reinforcement and refinement. Due to the resourceful and flexible aspects of music, even a single activity allows children of varying abilities to take part.

Effective Hands-on Learning

Remain cognizant that every student learns differently. The emotional immaturity and lack of communication skills of behaviorally challenged students can mask the reality of their high intelligence. It does not mean they don't understand. Understanding the special learner's own particular style of communication reigns paramount. Learning hands-on (kinesthetically) generally is effective for most special learners – one simple instruction at a time. If presenting the learner a new idea, give pieces of information all at once to assess comprehension, otherwise he might not see the reason for the activity.

Show how music education can enhance the student's life. The intent is to master skills and concepts at the appropriate functioning level. Music helps the special learner interact with the community better. The music teacher is a member of a professional community taking part in the decision-making efforts of inclusion: a team who coordinates each child's efforts to communicate problems and progress. Attendance at special education workshops helps. Foremost, the instructor disregards society's and various professionals' labeling of the learning disabled. Overlooking these labels is important when creating instructional strategies. Individual basic skill development inventory is the best way to form the foundation for individual goals.

Implementing and Adapting to Reinforce Music Skills

A good lesson plan idea that helps to advance the capability of learners to decode four-beat rhythms is a 20 to 40 minute reinforcement exercise. Although designed for elementary school students, the lesson is applicable to various age groups. The objective involves students writing the decoded four-beat rhythm on the chalkboard or white board after hearing it – using eighth notes, quarter notes and quarter rests. Materials require only the chalkboard and chalk or white board and wipe-off markers. On the board, the teacher divides a lengthy rectangle into four equal squares. A class member volunteers to go to the chalkboard. The instructor beats a four-beat rhythm with rhythm sticks, after telling the class and volunteer to listen. When repeating the rhythm, the volunteer tries to decode the rhythm by designating a quarter rest, quarter note or pair of eighth notes in the square. If the learner cannot guess the beat, then he may ask a member of the class for help. Applaud when the note is correctly written. If he struggles with the answer, the teacher should play it again or ask another student to assist.

If the chosen special needs student has a hearing disability, you could adapt by using a large bongo or bass drum to beat out the pattern so that they can feel the vibrations on the floor. If they have a physical disability and say are in a wheel chair, then the teacher could give them flashcards to lay across their laps or to hang on the board instead. For those who are more visual and kinesthetic learners, the teacher could write the rhythm on the board or use large rhythmic display cards, and the student could clap, tap or play the rhythm on a percussive instrument. Music can easily be modified for various learning limitations.

Other class exercises or suggestions for adaptation and participation:

  • Playing easy instruments like bells, whistles, drums, triangles, castanets, rhythm sticks and other rhythm instruments can reinforce student achievement.
  • Clapping and singing may achieve the same.
  • To increase comprehension, use display cards that spell out the musical task you want the student to master. Demonstrate the activity while you point to the card. Then ask the learner to attempt the exercise.
  • Let a class member choose a song to sing, and accompany it with instruments or dance.
  • Let a student pick an instrument to accompany a song.
  • Let the student conduct a song.
  • Put together a talent show or a “Name That Tune" game.
  • Find a musical activity the student carries out well and let him develop leadership.
  • Have students perform musical tasks separately – read lyrics or clap a rhythm.
  • If teaching a new song, students can join in on the refrain. Experiment with voice range.
  • Use brilliantly colored visual aids to denote tempo, rhythm, words and notes.

Adaptions an Ongoing Process

Based on the ever changing requirements of individual learners, adaptions are an ongoing process. IEP examination and special education consultations provide learning styles, skills, needs and strengths of special learners. Even students with physical and cognitive impairments can master music skills and concepts with effective instruction. Thus, their classroom experience reaches beyond solely entertainment purposes. It is vital to realize the numerous strategies employed for instructional planning: curricular, behavioral, environmental, presentation, motivational and organizational. Explore different teaching methods that involve increased repetition, practice, hands-on exercises and one-on-one attention for teaching special learners in the music classroom.



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