10 helpful strategies to support successful music teaching to Early Years’ groups which include SEND learners
“I have a variety of abilities in one of my music groups, which also includes some SEND learners. How can I possibly accommodate their needs and provide a comprehensive musical experience that engages all the children? I feel it’s impossible!”
This is a question posed by several music teachers. Often, musicians find themselves exploring music with Early Years’ children with very little training or support, and the feeling of trying to meet all the children’s needs, all at once, becomes quite overwhelming. It’s at times like these that it’s important to take a step back, breathe deeply, and reflect for a moment on exactly what the primary objective of each session is.
Surely, the over-riding objective of any teaching is to make learning music fun. If a child is enjoying themselves they are engaged, secure, and receptive to learning new concepts and ideas.
In music, perhaps more so than in any other subject learnt in childhood, we have the opportunity to create a totally safe and creative space: the children need to be experiencing their own responses to musical stimuli and should be encouraged to celebrate their individuality and uniqueness. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways – creative expression takes a variety of forms, and most of those expressions, in relation to music, are ‘in the moment’. So, the first priority is to plan an enjoyable session for both children and adults; one that is enjoyable to deliver, and even more so to receive!
To begin, let’s consider the range of separate needs of all the children in the group. In order to do so, we need to think about the variety of competing demands we are being presented with. Here, this requires us to look at some of the characteristics that go into forming our SEND learners.
It is important to bear in mind that SEND is actually an umbrella term that incorporates a number of different ‘labels’ or categories, such as Autism, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), to name just a few. Each label contains a number of characteristic traits (which could be behavioural, emotional, physical or cognitive). These traits can overlap and/or coexist with other conditions.
The way these conditions affect individuals can be very different, so no two cases present in the same way. For example, within the Autistic Spectrum Condition, some children could display a hypersensitivity to sound (they experience it intensely and find it very uncomfortable), whilst others may display hyposensitivity, where they appear completely immune to the intensity and/or volume of sound.
Furthermore, the level of these sensitivities does not remain static. The discomforts that a child feels on one day might not be the same as the ones they experience the next time they see you. So for example, the child might appear to be happy accommodating the sound levels in one lesson, but be very uncomfortable in the next. It is always helpful to have some headphones to hand so that they can be offered to the child in such circumstances.
Below are 10 strategies designed to help in considering how to offer inclusive sessions to children of differing needs
1. Set some routines with the group:
Start with a greeting song and end with a goodbye song. Soon the children will learn that these songs signify the beginning and end of the session. (You can vary the mode of delivery – sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes moving etc.) Also, use particular songs to signal transitions, such as from sitting to standing. This adds a touch of security to the procedure, so that those children who have difficulty transitioning from one task to the next have a musical preparation time built in to the schedule. Our song, Join hands and make a circle works like magic after just a few sessions! The children only have to hear the opening few notes before they are up and busy joining hands with their friends!
2. Set behavioural boundaries:
This is so important in the music sessions, particularly around using instruments and teaching the children that instruments are not toys.
To help with instilling this behaviour, ask the children to sit and fold their arms as an instrument is placed in front of them. They are not to touch the instrument until everybody in the group has one in front of each of them. Then, only when they are instructed, can they pick up and play their instruments. This is a skill that has to be learnt – don’t expect absolute success on the first few times of trying! Also, be very considerate here – don’t make the most impatient child in the group have to wait the longest with the instrument in front of them.
If a child is tempted to touch the instrument, then by placing your hand over the instrument, or moving it just out of reach, is usually enough to get the message across, without having to draw negative attention to this action.
The song On the count of three works tremendously well here – the children soon learn when to play and when not to play, and they treat the whole experience as a musical challenge. Brilliant!
In addition to concentrating on instrumental discipline and behaviour, we are teaching the children a valuable lesson about ‘delayed gratification’. This is the act of resisting an immediate impulse to take a reward (- playing the instrument immediately and risking having it taken away), in order to receive a more-valued reward in the future (-playing the instrument together with friends and participating in the game). The ability to delay gratification is such an important skill to develop for later life, as it helps to develop self-regulation, or self-control. You can read more about this in the ‘Marshmallow Test’ here
3. Always be positive:
Model the behaviour you want to see in the children. Reward their positive behaviour and, as mentioned in the previous point, try to ignore and/or contain inappropriate behaviour without drawing negative attention to it.
4. Be specific
Keep your instructions and directions clear and concise, and try to offer them rhythmically. In fact, during the music session it is often possible not to use spoken instructions at all, and let the music speak and instruct for you. A very good example of this is our Bend your knees song, where the children have to listen and immediately respond to what the song is asking them to do.
5. Use incentives
Neatly place the ordered set of instruments and props ready for the session. If they are placed just out of reach of little hands, they works wonders at preparing the children for what songs will be covered in the session. A few simple words of positive praise also work well.
6. Be diligent in maintaining an overview of what is going on
Always ‘read’ the group throughout the entire session. Are the majority of the group engaged in what they are doing? If so, can you extend the activity for a little longer and go into more depth with it? Alternatively, are they restless and do you need to move on to something else a little more quickly than you had planned? Is the group dynamic positive? Is anyone distracted? If so, try to draw them in without changing the pace of the activity. Eye contact is such an essential tool here, and is often enough to show the children they are sharing the experience with you.
7. Model positive social interaction
As mentioned previously in 3 above, be positive, patient and respectful at all times! (Often easier said than done!) Use empathy as your underlying support throughout the sessions, and try to anticipate and avert challenges rather than allow them room to grow.
8. Vary the activities
Plan each session so that there are a wide variety of activities available, even though the learning objective you are aiming to cover remains static. So, for example, your aim is to establish a strong sense of pulse within each child. Cover this objective through listening, singing, moving, playing, using individual, independent activities, and some group activities too. Always ‘mix it up’! By doing so, you are offering each learner the opportunity to access the learning in the best way that suits their individual profile.
This is why all our session plans are grouped to form an arc: we start with ‘quiet’ activities, move onto more physical, lively activities in the middle of the session, and then finish with a range of calmer songs. In this way, the session is paced and varied, but the underlying objective – pulse, or rhythm, etc – remains the same.
9. Be accepting and non-judgemental
Always deal with whatever behaviour and situation you are presented with positively and with understanding. Bear in mind the fact that young children, and particularly SEND learners, are often not able to control their impulses and emotions. Also, as mentioned in the introduction above, behaviours can change in the blink of an eye. The challenges you experience in one session are not necessarily the same ones that you will meet in the next!
10. Be dependable and follow-through
It is not always possible to cover all the material you had planned for one session. In these instances, you can guarantee there will be one or two children who have been looking forward to singing the drum/parachute/ball song and they are about to leave the session disappointed. Make a point of telling them you will include it in the next session instead, and then remember to do so as a priority! Make a note of the children you have singled out in one way or another during the session, so that you can ensure you select different children in the next session. Aim for inclusivity in absolutely every respect during your sessions. Every child attending your sessions needs to build, and enjoy, their own unique relationship with you. Good luck on the journey!