George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I’ve heard Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" a few times in the last week, and the unhappy news is that it's now playing on repeat inside my head . . . over and over and over again. The good news is that we can actually use this scenario to our advantage with our difficult-to-reach students and special learners. Music can often be the key that unlocks the door to learning for children who think outside of the box. In fact, studies have found that individuals with diagnoses such as autism and Williams syndrome frequently have preserved musical abilities despite challenges in non-music functioning.

Capitalizing on these benefits, board-certified music therapists develop music-based interventions to help students make progress in educational goal areas. Music therapy is even recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and states such as California as a related service which may be required for a student to benefit from his or her educational program.

As music therapists, we have the unique opportunity to compose educational songs, write learning chants, and use musical cues to target goals that students are having difficulty meeting. We use music as a motivator, memory tool, timekeeper, and way to elicit communication when other strategies have not been effective. In school settings, music therapists provide consultation, training, and resources to the child's teacher and other members of the IEP team.

Even if you sing off-key, there are many simple ways for integrating music-assisted learning techniques to help your students tune in. Here are four music therapist-recommended strategies to use music as a teaching tool in special education.

1. Music + Visual Supports = Increased Comprehension

While music is an effective memory cue and learning modality, many students still perform best when visual cues are paired with auditory stimuli. Using flash cards, song story books, digital pictures, and even physical gestures can increase students' understanding of the lyrics they are hearing or singing. Here's an example of a song about money with simple visual supports:

2. Favorite Songs as a Teaching Tool

For students who have limited interests or are difficult to engage, try creating a lesson plan around one of their favorite songs. Let's take the earlier example of the song "Happy." Given printed or digital lyric sheets, students can read the song lyrics out loud, identify unfamiliar vocabulary, circle key words, and discuss the song's meaning. Afterward, students can complete a related writing activity based on the central themes in the song.

For younger students, provide pictures or photos that relate to the main characters, animals, objects, or actions from a song. Engage the student in selecting the correct pictures as you sing the words from the song, or have them sequence the pictures in order from memory after listening to the song.

3. Rhythm Is Your Friend

There is a focus in special education (especially with autism intervention) on structuring the student's visual environment. What about auditory information? Verbal instructions and dialog can also be overwhelming for students who have difficulty filtering for the important information they should attend to. Rhythm helps emphasize key words, add a predictable cadence, and naturally gets the body in sync with and tuned into the activity.

Try this simple greeting chant:

  • Let’s go 'round in a circle.
  • Let’s go 'round in a game.
  • When I get to you, tell me, what’s your name?

Students can tap the syllables to their name on a drum to help with their articulation and pacing. Tapping a rhythm on the table, a knee, or a drum is also a great tool for students who speak too fast or are difficult to understand.

4. Generalization Is Key

It's great to see a student who can sing his or her phone number, math facts, or classroom rules through a song, but what happens when music time is over? It's our job as educators to facilitate the generalization of skills from the music to the non-music setting. Some ways to do this include:

  • After a song, ask the students "Wh" questions (who, what, when, where, why) about the song content in spoken language.
  • Use visual supports from the song during related non-music activities. You might use pictures from a hand-washing song as cues during actual hand washing at the sink.
  • Use lyrics from the song as cues throughout the week. If you have a behavioral song cuing the student to keep their hands down, you might start by singing the "hands down" phrase at other times during the day when you see the student becoming restless. Later you can fade the singing into a spoken voice.

Now it's your turn to get those songs out of your head and into the classroom! And please share with us how you use music with your special education students.

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Apocalyptically hyperactive Dexter was squirming in the desk I pulled next to my desk in the back of the classroom. He had come in for some after-school guidance on how to do a bit better job in his Georgia history studies.

I was listening to jazz tune "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" by the Allman Brothers Band when it hit me. I told Dexter I knew what he should do when he grows up because of all his sensational energy and sense of fun and adventure. The heck with Georgia history.

Dexter smiled and his braces sparkled and he chirped...What! only Dexter can if he'd been waiting a long time for someone to finally reveal his professional future to him.

I said you really ought to think about being a rock and roll star. You'd be a great one. You'd get to jump around on stage and people would cheer for you and you could play a guitar as fast and as insanely as you wanted.

Dexter's mood darkened. He said he didn't know how to play a guitar.

I said you could learn. People learn how to play guitars all the time. And you know a lot of these guys, after they end a concert, jump into the crowd.

Dexter said what if they don't catch me?

I said it would hurt a whole lot because you'd be so amped up anyway, like a spider monkey...but when you play well and sing well and jump around on the stage real good then your fans will catch you. I promise. And then they'll carry you around way up in the air and then chuck you back up on the stage so you can play some more songs.

I watched him for a moment or two. Dexter was really chewing on it. Then he said he believed they also get to smash their guitars on the stage, too...right?

Yep. Some of them smash their guitars.

Dexter chewed on that, too. I watched him again and then I said listen to that music, man...listen to that guitar playing on this song. It's so good...making and playing classic music has got to be the most incredible experience, I said. I turned the volume up a little bit.

Dexter listened to that long Allman Brothers' jazz song for a long time--ears perked, like a cat on if the answer about what he should do when he grew up was hidden between the notes.

Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC's picture
Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC
Autism Specialist & Music Therapist

MStokes Kudos to your family on creating a great resource. Pacing is key for so many of our students with auditory processing or speech disorders. Slowing down the words and music really offers an opportunity for them to be a part of the song.

Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC's picture
Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC
Autism Specialist & Music Therapist

Dixie Diarist, Your vividly written story reminds me of how some kids with ADD and ADHD are able to absolutely zone in to playing an instrument. I think the rhythmic and melodic patterns can really put them into a positive zone and lead to a lifelong hobby and hey.. potentially rock star status!

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


The Education of Lamar is becoming a daily hit parade. I can't wait to get to school and I can't wait to leave.

Today in my first period I had them studying for tomorrow's vocabulary test. It was nice and quiet, which spooked me, so I asked them if they'd like for me to play some music, quietly, while they studied.

Everybody said yes except Lucy.

Sorry Lucy. I said all I've got in the laptop is the Allman Brothers Band...Stand Back: The Anthology disc one. Cool?

I thought Lamar was going to leap across the room. He screamed...I've got some music! Can we play it!

Why a vision of Marilyn Manson came into my head spooked me deeper. I said sure...what is it? Marilyn Manson?

Lamar said, with wild eyes, that it was a Louis Armstrong CD.

I said, as emotionless as I could possibly stand it...You're kidding. I thought about Lamar...Louis Armstrong...his twistiness and unending surprises. His unpredictability. He really is as unpredictable as a squirrel juking around in the middle of a busy street. They typically don't get run over.

Lamar handed me the CD and I started playing it. Our first selection was "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Lamar sat there and stared at me, while smiling, instead of studying his thirty new vocabulary words.

I asked him...why a guy like know...would have a Louis Armstrong CD.

Lamar said he likes to hear trumpets play.

I asked Lamar if he played the trumpet.

Lamar said no.

I stared at Lamar for a long moment, trying to figure out what just happened. I couldn't figure it out, so I thought to give him a piece of candy. What the heck. It seemed sort of like he might have just done something good. I opened my desk drawer and discovered I didn't have any more candy. I told Lamar so, and then I said all I have is this...I reached into my mouth and pulled out the wad of my chewing gum and held it out. Lamar's expression, for a millionth of a second, showed me he strongly considered taking it.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


I'm substituting for a teacher who had field trip lunch duty today. He's a math teacher and the school's soccer coach. He's got a quite a few religious icons in his classroom. I wonder why.

Anyway, I'm back in the school-within-a-school and I'm driving a beat-up school bus full of high school guys. Every one of them has Asperger's disorder. A whole lot of Asperger's disorder. We're on our way to the local Steak 'n Shake.

Principal Pam told me to make sure they all calculate the right tip, and then actually leave the tip on the table. Pam said the last time the boys were there they didn't get the concept of tipping quite right while the regular teacher was in the bathroom and later that day the Steak 'n Shake manager called the school to complain.

And here I am a substitute teacher for only a month and these guys have already given me a nickname. Driving this clunky, squatty bus for the first time, every time I turned the bus to the right I chugged over, or scraped against, a curb. Now they call me "The Curbinator."

I immediately assumed a school bus full of high school guys with Asperger's disorder is supposed to be real loud. I gave into the assumption pretty quickly. They are all deeply interested in a wide range of topics and they were making their points with each other as verbally as possible. I assumed for as long as I could stand it. The inside of the bus must be made of tin. I asked them could they quiet down a little bit so I won't hit any more curbs.

They quieted down for about three seconds, and then cranked it up again. I heard vigorous conversations about the Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders, Minecraft, a girl named Petal, and presidential politics.

I asked them again. Same result.

A fellow sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder. He said if you want them to shut the hell up then turn on Ninety-Five-Five The Beat. That'll do it.

The radio station?

Yeah, turn it on and watch what happens.

95.5 The Beat is a radio station that plays rap and hip hop music. Most of the songs are about sex, guns, women with fat butts, and how to control your woman, fat butt or not. I turned on. They instantly shut up.

That guy behind me said...Told you.

After a minute I asked anyone why you guys shut up. These songs are so bad they're good...know what I mean?

A kid in the back yelled...Because our parents won't let us listen to the radio.

I understand. At the time, a song was playing called "What's Your Fantasy," sung by a fellow named Ludacris. I'd heard the song before, a bunch of times, and it has a way of sticking in your brain and it won't come out. It seems to be about a man who loves a woman very much:

I wanna, li-li-li-lick you from yo head to yo toes ... And I wanna... move from the bed down to the down to the flo ... Then I wanna, ahh ahh, you make it so good I don't wanna leave ... But I gotta, kn-kn-kn-know what-what's your fan-ta-ta-seee!

From there, Ludacris sings about how he'd like to have intimate relations with his woman in a huge number of additional and different locations around town. The list is extremely long. Ludacris must have a lot of energy, time, and money.

Anyhow, the fellows tipped real well this time. And on the way back we got to hear the song all over again, cranked up even louder. That fellow behind me tapped me on the shoulder as we were pulling into the school parking lot. He said thanks a lot...the regular teacher's a prude bee-yotch.

Brian's picture

Wonderful article! Music is a language we can all relate to and enjoy! Special education students and twice exceptional students respond well to music. They relate to patterns, rhythms and the calmness it brings to their emotions.

Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC's picture
Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC
Autism Specialist & Music Therapist

Brian, thanks for taking the time to read my post. It's so true that even the patterns inherent in music can create such a rhythmic invitation to get students synced to a slower, calmer pace. In the past we've even used 'heartbeat' music composed at 60 beats per minute to emulate the soothing quality of a mother's natural rhythmic lullaby.

Linda Pieterse's picture
Linda Pieterse
Teach Syllables for Better Reading

Brilliant article! Indeed music is one of the oldest and most undervalued teaching tools. It plays a great role in building preceding skills and learning to read as well:

- Singing exercises lungs and builds breathing awareness (very important for blending sounds later on!)
- Singing helps children break up words into manageable pieces (syllables)
- Singing draws awareness to pronunciation (especially very slow and very fast songs)
- Singing helps children understand word and sentence structure
- Singing builds vocabulary.

I have devoted a whole Article on how to build early reading skills just singing songs on my blog:

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Thanks for sharing Linda! This looks like it has some great resources to explore.

Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC's picture
Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC
Autism Specialist & Music Therapist

Linda, these are great connections between singing and literacy, thanks so much for sharing! I think your tips do such a great job at justifying the continued use of singing in the classroom. From an outside perspective someone observing a classroom singing tunes may think this is just part of their recreational time but your article really helps explain in detail how singing actually fits perfectly with classroom literacy curricula.

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