Drums and songs might not be the first place the mind goes when one thinks about how to teach children social skills, but it's a route special educators are taking to help students succeed.
Music therapy, a service provided by certified therapists, is an option to help students with disabilities meet goals on their individualized education programs, or IEP. Musical instruments or songs are used to engage students and meet goals ranging from improving fine and gross motor skills to helping a nonverbal child with autism learn to communicate.
Music therapy isn't something special education teachers are typically trained in. The St. Charles School District contracts with Midwest Music Therapy Services, a Clayton-based firm to provide the service for about $58 per hour.
"It's a relatively rare service," said Kay Davis, special education director for St. Charles School District.
There are a few reasons why it isn't widely used. Parents and educators are often confused about the service's purpose, said music therapist Catherine Decker, who owns CdMarie's Music Therapy Services LLC and works with clients throughout St. Charles County.
"A lot of people think you're doing musical education," she said. "The real reason you're using it is to meet non-music-related goals."
For example, a student using a guitar in music therapy isn't aiming to develop musical literacy. Rather, the student is learning how to manipulate fingers to better fine and gross motor skills.
"For social skills we work on turn taking, sharing and being in a group setting with other kids. We learn how to get attention appropriately," said Maria Carron, who founded Midwest Music Therapy. "Music can also assist in processing information, sequencing and following directions as well as help in learning a variety of different academic skills like numbers, letters and colors. It is individualized for the needs of each student."
In the school setting, children receiving music therapy must have an IEP and have been diagnosed with an educational disability, such as autism or Down syndrome. The criteria for getting the service is stiff.
"When a student is assessed for music therapy service, the district has already identified that all other therapies or strategies aren't working to meet their individual education goals," Carron said.
Music therapy is a related service, meaning it is offered in addition to the standard strategies for helping students meet their IEP goals, like reading at a higher grade level or pronouncing consonants with proficiency. It is typically a last resort after other interventions have fallen short.
"It would need to be determined that that student needs that service to make progress and that progress would not be made without that service. That's very important. A lot of people have trouble understanding that," Davis said. That means the therapy can't be implemented just because a child enjoys music.
Therapists said they see measurable progress with students, like increased motivation and better grades. The therapy isn't limited to children. Decker has used music therapy with seniors who have had strokes.
"We work with them to try to retrieve their access to expressive language," she said. "In general, we really do work with all populations. There's different techniques and approaches for different disabilities."