Oliver* is one of our older students; he has been at our school for children with severe learning difficulties since he was very young. He is a lively, caring, determined student, who has a syndrome and co-morbid global development delay. He has limited verbal communication, which he supports with gestures, symbols and augmentative technology.
Oliver has displayed challenging behaviour in the past, including swearing, pushing and throwing his body around. He had responded very well to strategies implemented to support him, and these incidents had greatly reduced. The only time that Oliver continued to struggle would be if staff or students were not in school due to being poorly. It appeared that he did not understand if he would ever see them again, as Oliver’s understanding is very concrete and mainly in the ‘here and now’.
After a school holiday, some of this behaviour began to return; Oliver became tearful and frustrated. We found out that Oliver had experienced some significant loss and change at home. We were already pre-emptively aware that Oliver might have a tricky year ahead: his closest group of friends were all older than him, so they would be leaving at the end of the year, whereas he would stay on. This new information intensified our worries.
We then found out that due to unforeseen circumstances, his class would have to move to a different site in the new school year. All of this created an overwhelming picture of change for Oliver. At the time when we needed him to be most settled and secure - i.e. when we were preparing to support him to transition away from a school he had attended for many years - he was experiencing overwhelming change and therefore was at his most anxious and distressed.
We decided that Oliver would be one of the students who would access weekly music therapy, funded by Youth Music. He clearly needed a safe space to recognise his anxieties and feelings of loss, and to be able to develop strategies to manage them.
Oliver’s music therapist took the time to really understand his needs and quickly built up a strong, trusting professional relationship. During the sessions, Oliver has been on an incredible journey: communication facilitated through music means that his lack of language does not hold him back from extensive self-expression. Sometimes, his musical responses have been raw and vulnerable – howling with emotion and misery; other times, he is more gentle, softly taking himself to tears. On some occasions, he is very angry, swearing and banging; sometimes he is playful and cheery, celebrating those he loves and initiating imaginative play. This incredible and expression and reaction was immediate – it is clear that this therapeutic space, enhanced by Oliver’s love of music, was exactly what he needed.
As Oliver put these feelings to music, he gave form and shape to them, which made them more understandable and less threatening to him. His therapist could then join him in these feelings and show Oliver that he was listened to. He was understood.
One year later, we are overwhelmed and delighted by the change in Oliver. There have been no significant incidents of challenging behaviour and he is better able to accurately share his feelings with staff. He managed the transition of saying goodbye to dear friends and moving to a new site with an amazing level of maturity.
A key part of this success has been professional dialogue and support. The therapist provides weekly feedback, both verbally and through email, to Oliver’s teacher and explains how the strategies that he is using to support Oliver. Oliver’s teacher is then able to use this information to adapt her approach and support for Oliver, as well as reflecting this in his behaviour support plan. The impact of the sessions therefore is spread far.
In times of austerity as we are, we would have struggled to provide this support for Oliver without funding from Youth Music. Oliver is now moving towards adulthood in a very positive position: a young man who still has worries, but now knows how to express them and feels secure that he will be listened to and supported in a way that entirely reflects his highly individualised needs. His future is exciting.
*Name has been changed