Using music and music therapy to help children and young people manage challenges

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As part of Children’s Mental Health Week (7 – 13 February), Dr Elizabeth Coombes, music therapist and senior lecturer at the University of South Wales (USW), discusses her research. 

Dr Coombes leads USW’s MA Music Therapy training course. Approved by the Health and Care Professions Council, it is the only such course in Wales.

“My research interests and clinical work focus on using music and music therapy to help infants, children and young people reach their potential and be able to manage challenges they experience in their lives.

At the present time, Covid-19 has had and continues to have huge impacts on the ability of our children and young people to learn and develop. Pupils are experiencing high levels of anxiety and struggling to connect with learning and the social aspects of school life. Research shows that music therapy delivered in schools can help children deal with these difficulties and see school as a positive and supportive environment.

I’m currently working on a pilot project with three other music therapists in Cardiff, funded by the Welsh Government, as part of a Covid-19 recovery plan to focus on well-being for children and young people. Cardiff County and the Vale of Glamorgan Music Service are managing the project that takes place in 13 mainstream schools including two high schools and their feeder primaries in Cardiff. 

Based on discussions with relevant teaching staff, each school receives a mixture of small group and individual sessions, so we are responding to identified needs in each school. A tailored provision is important; no two schools are exactly alike. Therapists use structured musical activities, song-writing, drum circles, listening to and creating playlists, and free improvisation to explore a range of issues with the pupils. These include:·      

  • High levels of anxiety
  • Difficulty in verbalising emotions
  • Acting out behaviours
  • Lack of social awareness and skills

Music therapy has proven benefits for the above issues. It is non-verbal which is very helpful when pupils struggle to talk about how they feel. They can explore thoughts and emotions through a range of different instruments and musical activities. Music therapists are skilled in tailoring sessions to suit the identified needs of the group or individual and can also advise staff on simple musical activities that can be built into class activities.

Liz Coombes.jpgWe have already seen improvements inside and outside the music therapy sessions. Teachers have reported improved social skills and reduced anxiety in pupils. This leads to improved engagement in learning and school activities. I’ve found that pupils often request calming activities. They want something to help them feel safe and secure, and to relax. One effective way of promoting this is drum circles where we use hand drums to play steady grounding rhythms. This together with gentle melodic improvisations provide opportunities for pupils to physically relax and make connections between physical and emotional states.

Turn-taking musical activities and conducting games, where pupils lead the playing of the group, build confidence and are fun and engaging. Once pupils have settled into the music therapy, they also show interest in trying new instruments or learning about new music and music-based apps.

Dr Elizabeth Coombes

Developing creative responses and being interested in the kind of music children relate to, without judging their choices, helps build positive relationships between therapist and pupils that are key to learning and development.

So far, our research and practice in this project shows that there is a real need for skilled music therapists in schools. Identifying children and young people who need that bit of extra support to help them feel at ease in school and develop a strong connection to the social and educational opportunities on offer is key. 

Music can be used effectively by teachers to engage pupils and music therapy can be offered to pupils who need extra support to be able to reach their potential and engage with school life.

The project is due to end in March, but we are hoping to receive further funding to continue for the full school year.  After this, there will be the chance for schools to commission music therapy from the Music Service, as needed, to support their pupils.”

3 easy ways to use music therapeutically with classes

1.     Offering a music-listening time of the day to promote relaxation.

2.     Using listening to music during lessons to change a mood, motivate the class or encourage thinking. With mobile phones we all have the power to use music more intentionally for our benefit.

3.     Using some call and response/turn-taking sound games during lessons to promote engagement and feelings of togetherness. Clapping and tapping games really work!