Music to their Ears: Song- and Instrument-based Therapy Helps Kids with Special Needs Develop, Participate

“This is the way we shrug our shoulders at school today,” sings Kate Pereversoff, while she plays the tune on a guitar.

Gathered in a circle around her, a group of four- and five-year-olds move their shoulders up and down, some sitting, some standing, a few singing along quietly. Pereversoff raises her voice, changes the song’s words from “shrug our shoulders” to “tap and stomp,” and strums more loudly and quickly. Immediately, the energy level in the classroom rises, and the children clap and jump and yell.

Pereversoff, a music therapist with JB Music Therapy in Calgary, visits Renfrew Education’s Park Place preschool location once a week to lead music class with this group of kids, 70 per cent of whom have special needs ranging from autism spectrum disorder to cerebral palsy.

Once the music starts, however, it’s almost impossible to tell who has challenges in this inclusive environment. It looks like the students are just having a big dance party, but learning is happening through songs that identify body parts, count out numbers or recite the alphabet. When Pereversoff passes around a drum and then a xylophone, the preschoolers practise taking turns and playing the instrument in time to the beat. For many of the kids, this half-hour is therapy.

“When you look at early child development, music is an important part of that fabric,” says Robin McKittrick, Park Place manager. So many preschool songs teach concepts, he says, from rhyming to farm animals and the sounds they make. For kids with special needs, the same learning applies, but music is also motivational and it can be a vehicle for getting them to participate and socialize.

“It can open that window into engagement with them,” says McKittrick. “For children who don’t have the ability to contribute verbally, or those who have motor planning difficulties, they can play an instrument or just move their bodies and be part of the classroom.”