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Understanding musical responses from young people with special educational needs

Understanding musical responses from young people with special educational needs

R liked to play the drum from the inside where the acoustics were better..!


Over the last year Music Making SENse has been working with the students and staff of three special educational needs (SEN) schools in Lambeth. Within our project we deliver ensemble activities for our participants and work with the staff to improve their practical musical skills and how they may best support the musical engagement of the students. 


The majority of the staff we work with have little or no musical training. As part of our training and through our reflective practice, we help others and ourselves to better understand what is a musical response. 


When working with SEN young people a multitude of behaviours and response will arise that can be interpreted in a number of ways. Some of which musicians would immediately recognise as being musical (e.g. vocalising) but others not (e.g. eye contact or a participant moving their foot). 


Equally some of the responses that arise can relate to an individual’s restricted and repetitive behaviours (i.e. self-simulatory behaviour), behaviours the staff are working to discourage and manage (e.g. invading the personal space of others) or can lead to overstimulation (which can impact the health of the student). So how do we recognise a musical response from other behaviours? 


  • Structure and consistency: Embedding a structure, and programme of repertoire that is developed over time based on the participant’s responses (we use the same repertoire for 10 weeks) enables students with severe, profound and multiple needs to become familiar and at ease with the session. It allows you time to get to know and understand each individual and to look for consistencies in response. 
  • Partnership working with SEN staff: Use the expertise of the teachers and support staff. Knowledge is power so pre-project meetings are vital for learning about the behaviour patterns and needs of the young people you will be working with. Build good relationships with the staff and really encourage their skills in your sessions as the investment they have in the project will lead to greater communication and support. 
  • Training for project staff: As part of professional development it’s useful for music and SEN staff to discuss the array of responses that may arise and how these can be interpreted. For example, playing instruments in different ways can show: 
    • the exploration of different sounds and materials of an instrument. 
    • the sensory exploration of the instrument through its hold i.e. how one can hear or see the strings better, avoid physical discomfort through developing idiosyncratic ways to play the instrument that are best for the participant. 
    • Pushing instruments away may be an individual’s way of communicating they have finished playing / no longer want to play or exploring are the shape of the instrument. 



Every child we work with is different; they present different responses and they have different needs. Our ability to understand participants’ expressions and communications can have a positive or negative impact on their music-making, engagement, and relationship with others, as well as how we assess their learning and enable their creativity. Therefore, we everyone supporting a child needs to share their expertise to ensure we are able to support them fully. 


Here is a video of R. In a break from some loud drumming as we were transitioning to the next activity we heard him singing his own improvisation. Singing it back to him we were able to encourage a musical dialogue. The melody then formed a section of the group’s composition.


Music Making SENse is the lead delivery partner of Lambeth Music Hub’s ‘Banding together: Developing learning pathways for young people with special educational needs’ project. The project has encouraged the development of ensemble learning in SEN schools, shared the benefits of group music making, and broad the musical experiences of its participants.  


Please visit our website for further details of our project and materials that may help you to plan and deliver music ensembles for young people with special educational needs.