There is already a wealth of resources, information, and material about using music in helping young children grow and develop. I had the pleasure of writing an article for the South Carolina Early Childhood Association about music therapy’s place in early childhood development. As a result of that article, the Louisiana Early Childhood Association is going to be publishing it in their journal! I’m really excited about this opportunity and feel like I’m slowly growing!

Since you are one of my wonderful readers, I’m going to share that article here with you today. Enjoy, and feel free to respond below with any questions or comments!

Young children—like adults—are each individuals. They have their own likes, dislikes and interests, however one thing seems to unite us: music. It is obvious in the tapping of the toe, the humming of a song, and the inherent music all around us. By utilizing this universal language, music therapists are able to utilize something we already love and are familiar with in order to promote the development and rehabilitation of the skills necessary for our children to reach their highest potential.

Music Therapy is defined as the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program (American Music Therapy Association, 2005). It is this therapeutic relationship that allows for music to become more than just atmospheric, but an active participant in treatment. The smile coming from the therapist and the vibrations from the strings of the guitar all serve to reinforce the flurry of activity and learning that is taking place in the mind and body. Throughout this play, therapists utilize their own learning, skills, and relationships to achieve the same thing: the goals of the child with whom they are working.

One benefit of Music Therapy is the large area of potential goal areas. Imagine a group of 2-3 year olds doing the Hokey Pokey in a circle with a guitar toting music therapist. They are dancing and laughing, but working on at least 5 developmental areas while performing the activity. The most obvious is movement. Fine and gross motor skills are being utilized while their legs and arms and fingers go in and out of the circle. Some, depending on how they are positioned, might even be crossing the midline, which aids in bilateral coordination. Crossing the midline builds cognitive function as well, by making the participant utilize both sides of our brain. The other part of our cognitive workout for these children is figuring out what body part the therapist just shouted out and moving it. By listening to the instructions, we’re working on receptive communication. By shaking the corresponding body part in time with the music, sensory skills (auditory, tactile, and visual) are being built. Last but not least, we are interacting socially. Some children will make eye contact with each other and giggle, some will look to the therapist for reassurance, and some may just perform the hokey pokey; their interaction being with the therapist’s voice and guitar.

The role of the therapist in the above setting is that of a motivator, musician, and also as an observer. The therapist may change the activity in subtle ways to focus on certain developmental areas more than others. By allowing children to interact through music with their peers and the therapist, they are able to practice these skills in a non-threatening and positive environment. Involving parents in Music Therapy treatment allows them to also practice positive parenting skills like communication and socialization by playing in the same environment with their child (Nicholson, Berthelsen, Abad, Williams, & Bradley, 2008).
For the child with special needs, a music therapist is able to individually target specific areas in need of development. In addressing difficulty socializing with peers, the therapist may instruct the group to “do the Hokey Pokey and give your neighbor 5!” If there are speech or language delays, instructions to shout the body part, or use signs, or even modeling may be used. Difficulty identifying emotions? The lyrics could be changed to “you smile when you’re happy, frown when you’re sad, smile when you’re happy, and you shake it all about…” These treatment interventions can take place in either a group or individual setting.

Decisions such as setting are often made in the early stages of music therapy treatment. Treatment in music therapy can fall into three basic categories: assessment, treatment, and termination. Throughout all phases communication is maintained with the caregiver about the child’s progress and the therapist’s recommendations. The assessment is completed at the beginning of treatment. The assessment can take place over one or several sessions, and will likely include speaking with other members of the child’s treatment team, or speaking in depth with the caregiver. During the assessment, the music therapist determines the child’s strengths and needs, as well as the appropriateness of music therapy. After the assessment is completed, goals and objectives are set, and treatment begins. Treatment takes place over many sessions and is composed of several interventions that the music therapist will utilize to produce the desired response outlined in the goals and objectives. As treatment progresses, music will gradually be taken away from the interventions to aid in generalizing the behaviors outside of music therapy. After the goals have been met, one of two things can happen: treatment can be terminated, or new goals can be set and a new cycle of treatment begun. Throughout the entire process, the music therapist will document the child’s progress so that informed decisions can be made.

Why utilize music therapy in the treatment of young children? As mentioned above in the analysis of the Hokey Pokey activity, music can help address multiple developmental levels at once. With the short attentions spans of young children, this multi-modal approach is important for optimal learning. We are also pre-programmed to enjoy and move to music (Zetner & Eerola, 2010). It only takes a quick search through YouTube to find babies and toddlers dancing to popular music without any provocation. Music therapy also aids in early intervention for developmental delays by providing opportunities to develop social skills, enhancing speech and language development, aiding in academic skills, increasing communication skills, and more (Kern & Aldridge, 2006). Music Therapy is also a cost effective treatment. Without the need to order multiple tests or use high tech equipment, music therapists are able to keep their costs low so that their services are available to as many people as possible.  Also, “not only may music activities be opportunities for a child to ‘shine’, but they may also be used to reinforce nonmusical goals. Most people, especially children, enjoy music – therefore, music therapy can be the therapy that reinforces all other therapies” (American Music Therapy Association, 2006)