Music therapy benefits special needs children
The benefits of using music as an everyday tool when teaching disabled children have been demonstrated in research by
Daphne Rickson, the first PhD graduate from the New Zealand School of Music – a joint venture between Victoria and
Mrs Rickson's degree will be conferred at the Victoria University graduation in the Michael Fowler Centre on Tuesday.
A lecturer in music therapy in the school at Massey's Wellington campus, she has worked with teams supporting four
primary school-age children with very high special needs in South Canterbury, the West Coast, the Bay of Plenty and
She spent a week at each school, showing the teachers and teacher aides working with the disabled student how to include
music in activities and daily routines, and provided a term of follow-up support to ensure the strategies were cemented
in classroom programmes.
Mrs Rickson says using music made a tangible difference to the relationship between team members and the student. “A big
part of it was that the team members felt more motivated and optimistic as a result of using music in their teaching and
care giving. They were able to communicate better with the student once they had learned strategies like taking the lead
from the student and going a bit more slowly to allow time for a response.
“As a result they became more positive about the student, and expected and got more from them.”
One example was a student who constantly got up from their desk and moved around the classroom. “The teacher made up a
‘sitting at your desk song’ and would sing it to the child whenever they weren’t at their desk. Within a few weeks, the
student was remaining seated for much longer periods.”
Mrs Rickson says giving team members confidence in their musical ability was one of the challenges. “People think you
have to be talented to make music, but that is a socially constructed view. In many cultures, music is as natural as
talking, and dancing as natural as walking.
“Some of the team members were self conscious at the start but the positive results made them bolder, together with the
fact that other children in the classroom did not make a big deal of it. Children at that age don’t judge; they just
love the sounds.”
Many of the research participants told her the music strategies would be helpful for all students, not just those with
special needs. “Music motivates and is a great form of emotional expression. It also keeps a group together—a class of
children that is marching and singing is more contained.”
She believes her approach, of spending intensive time with the team followed by ongoing support, is a formula that would
work well in other specialist areas. “You have to build a rapport with the team and see what they do day-to-day to find
out how best they can include new strategies in their routine. Going to a seminar for a few hours would be much less