Music therapy meets special needs

Parents everywhere can attest to the power of music to enrich and enhance a child’s life. What is perhaps not as well known is that music therapy is an established healthcare profession. Since the first college degree program was established in 1944, music therapists have addressed “physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals of all ages”. (American Music Therapy Association, 2005). Music therapists can be found working in hospitals, mental health centers, nursing homes, hospice facilities, neonate intensive care units and public schools.

For children receiving a special education, using music as a therapeutic tool may bring educational benefits as well. In a special education setting, music therapy may make a difference:
• For the child who is nonverbal, but will make eye contact and initiate a musical improvisation or “conversation” on a drum.
• For the child who refuses to attempt fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil or zipping a jacket, but will use his thumb and forefinger to carefully hold a guitar pick and strum the day away.
• For the child who does not spontaneously interact with others during a classroom activity, but will take turns with his peers and follow directions when the group is structured with movement and musical cues.
The fine motor and communication skills used in the examples above are non-musical skills that can be addressed by a music therapist. The ultimate aim is for the student to improve his motor or communication skills in music therapy, and to then transfer those skills to the classroom or home setting. 
Common related services in special education include speech, occupational and physical therapy. While not as well-known, music therapy also is a related service under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). If a child receives special education services, he may qualify for music therapy as a related service. As with other related services, music therapy is assessment based. If a child demonstrates during the assessment process that he can make significant progress on a specific IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) objective when it is structured with music (compared with other settings), it may be considered educationally necessary. Individualized music therapy strategies may then be used to assist a student in making progress on specific educational objectives. It is important to remember, however, that while most children respond positively to music, not every child requires music therapy as a related service to make progress on specific educational goals.  
Here are some facts to share when discussing music therapy with a child’s IEP team:
• Music therapy (MT) is a related service as defined in IDEA.
• Music therapy may be provided as an assessment-based related service or as educational enrichment in a school setting.
• To qualify for music therapy as a related service, a student must demonstrate during a formal assessment that MT is required for him to make progress on specified IEP objectives
• Music therapy assessments and services are provided by board certified music therapists (MT-BC).
Allyson Zadnik, MME, MT-BC, is a board certified music therapist in Pittsburgh. For information about music therapy, visit the American Music Therapy Association at