Use Music to Help Your Child Develop Skills

Children with developmental or neurological disorders have many challenges to overcome, but can still learn new skills. It is important that we check our assumptions about what someone is capable of, because they may exceed our expectations, given the opportunity.

My treatment philosophy is to treat every client as though they are capable of understanding what I am saying and so I explain what I am going to do, what responses I would like my client to have, and for how long we’ll be working on that particular skill. I might begin a session by saying, “Let’s play the tambourine. I want you to work on holding on to the tambourine as long as you can while I sing ‘Matilda the Gorilla’.” Then I’ll support the client in completing the skill as successfully as possible.

I used this technique with a client that has fairly severe developmental disabilities. He is in a wheelchair, has no functional communication skills, and limited functional use of his hands. His cognitive abilities are difficult to determine, due to his inability to communicate. So after completing his assessment for music therapy services, I determined that my primary goals would be providing sensory stimulation that would offer some sort of social interaction and encourage the highest level of functioning he is capable of. I expected that I might be able to shape some behaviors after several months of therapy so that he might keep his hand on a cabasa for 2 minutes while I was singing, for example. Or that he might make eye contact with me or an instrument for a period of time, demonstrating attention to tasks.

In this session, though, I sang the song, provided assistance keeping the tambourine in his hand, and verbally encouraged him to work on grasping and holding on to the tambourine between phrases and verses of the song. Again, I expected to use this technique to shape the desired behavior over several months. However, he surprised me by grasping the tambourine and, with assistance, holding on to it for the entire song. He also handed it back to me when I asked for it at the end of the song instead of tossing it to the side!

Now, this client did toss some other instruments to the side and was not able to hold on to things during other parts of this session, but his abilities during this experience surprised me. And reminded me to check my assumptions about his abilities and the goals he might be able to attain. I described more of this session on The Music Therapy Show.

You can use this technique to help your child develop skills:
-verbally explain what response you want (“Hold on to the tambourine without throwing it.”)
-demonstrate the response (Play the tambourine where your child can see you doing it.)
-offer opportunities for your child to give the response (Sing and play with your child daily, offering the tambourine to your child.)
-provide assistance and verbal praise (Help keep the tambourine in your child’s hand, saying, “I like the way you’re holding on!” or “Nice try–keep trying to hold that tambourine!”)
-passionately persist in practicing the skill (Practice daily, repeating the technique often with enthusiasm, even when it seems like it will never work.)

It might seem like your child is unable to attain a skill, but after the thousandth attempt, your child might surprise you and perform that skill.