We asked Advanced Music Leader Simon Williams to reflect on his experience and practice of working with children and young people with special needs, using the 'Do, Review, Improve' framework. All Cymaz Music provision is based on a young person centred approach and uses structure and flexible creativity in equal balance to offer high quality experiences.
Making music leading inclusive and high quality!
First of all let's set the scene, you walk into a new environment could be anywhere, but this particular environment is a special school. You're about to do the first session, usual nerves kick in, but feeling confident. The ground work has been done, you've spoken to the teacher, planned the outcomes, charged the iPads and painstakingly packed all the equipment needed. Let's say your organised. Everything is out and set up. The guitar is tuned, there are definitely no trailing cables. You have reorganised the inappropriate damp room, to make the most out of the space available. You are ready!
In walks the first group, followed by support staff. 2 of the students sit down see the lovely shiny equipment and are looking eager to do something. They may not know what they are going to do but they know something cool might happen. The third pupil has walked in dragging his heels, ripped the bedraggled display off the wall and is currently taking his shoes off and planning his escape out the room. The session continues with 2 students making a bunch of noises and loving every minute, however the third student has thrown your equipment across the room and ignored your presence.
In the background the staff are trying to be supportive, come on have ago, occasionally turning to you and saying things like; "he's having a bad day", "they are always like this with new people" or "he doesn't like trying new things". We finish the day off knowing that 99% of students have been engaged in a productive way, but the one thing we think about is that 1%. The one difficult and hard to engage pupil becomes the sole focus, it becomes the yard stick you judge yourself by.
We now have a problem, as the session is not inclusive. This one hard to reach student is going to come every week for the next ten weeks and we as practitioners need to do something about it. The usual paths of communication and techniques of engaging with young people were out of the question as this particular young man was non verbal, had ASD and sensory processing difficulties. What I would normally do would be to try and engage with the student verbally, find out some interests and try and build some connections so we could begin to think about ways to make music in the wider context of the young persons life.
Making music in the wider context of the young musicians life
The problem we had here was that in order engage this young man we needed to step into his world. He couldn't tell us what he would like to do so we had to work with him and the staff around him. Usually we use the power of spoken word to gain an insight, but here it was detective work as the motivating factors were very specific and out of the ordinary. When your world is made up of sensory experiences and particular likes, the educator somehow needs to find out this information in order for any learning to take place. He had already made his views known about the sessions by destroying the displays and trying to escape.
Sometimes the starting point can be easy to assess but there are often times when things aren't so straight forward and we have to accept that it may take a little time to work out learning styles and use this knowledge to progress. Often over planning activities can lead educators down a one way street which has no exits and no way to manoeuvre. This is fine if students are engaging well, however if they are not we can do a whole heap of damage with regards to engagement in the subject we are teaching.
So what did we do?
Well actually we talked! We talked amongst music leaders, we talked to staff and in the end we were able to work out ways in which to develop activities, songs and resources. After the first few sessions it was clear that the emphasis was going to be participation.
In order to ensure that he was not being held back or discriminated against, we had to go back to basics. What did he like and what kind of activities did he enjoy. This goes back to understanding the starting point. So initially the idea was to use iPads as they are usually motivating for many students, however the first few sessions proved unsuccessful after trying a variety of apps. We also tried different ways to access the the iPad including using a skoog. All proved difficult because it was a new activity for him and we needed to meet him on his own territory.
We tried singing songs linked to buckets filled with sensory items including water (which I was considering attaching to a makey makey ) and then some different dry textures. I wasn't quite sure how we would use them, I just wanted engagement. As it happens all of these activities were way too stimulating so it ended up another blind alley.
One thing we we did notice, he would often bring a piece of string and occasionally the string was attached to a balloon. This was actually our way in. A balloon on a piece of string, which we made musical by filling with rice. By week three we had also found out his favourite song "5 little monkeys jumping on the bed!"
Once we had entered his world he was able to explore a range of musical concepts including stop and go. He also joined in with the rest of the group playing his musical balloon. The displays remained on the wall and although he couldn't communicate using language he did take my hand gently in the breakthrough session. This was his way of communicating to me I enjoyed today.
From that point onwards we were able to engage positively with this young man. It allowed us to build a picture so that we could monitor his progress and set appropriate targets. We were able to broaden his musical horizons by introducing new activities such as playing with others. Later on in the sessions he accepted playing sounds on the iPad. He had originally thrown the iPad. While we would not claim that in the 10 sessions he met his full potential, he had made significant progress from when he first entered the room and threw my equipment.
In order for music leaders to make their sessions inclusive the starting point regardless of ability always has to be centred around the young person you are working with. There is a need for setting challenging and appropriate targets. There is also a need to broaden horizons, however if we are not engaging the student, if we are not entering their world we can actually damage their perception of music. Clearly there are times this can be difficult, however there is always a solution. The answers may not come straight away, but once we have the young person engaged we plan effectively and celebrate successes however small.