If you've ever googled music therapy, it's likely that you already know about Ryan Judd and The Rhythm Tree. For those who don't, Ryan is a certified music therapist who has been working extensively with children and adolescents with special needs for the past 13 years. He also trains, supervises and mentors music therapists in addition to working tirelessly to educate people about the benefits of music therapy. Here, he explains how the therapy works and the many ways it can benefit children with special needs.
What is music therapy and how does it help kids?
Music therapy is a research-based healthcare profession that uses music to help clients reach their therapeutic goals. Music therapists work with different people, including children with special needs, to help them reach developmental goals such as speech/communication, academic, social, behavioural and motor skills. Although we focus on these goals, primarily, music therapy can also be used to build a child's self-esteem, confidence and spirit.
What are the challenges you've faced while trying to integrate music in formal education?
The biggest challenge that I face is educating people in the formal school setting about the field of music therapy itself. Even though music therapy has been around since the 1950s, people still don't quite understand what all it entails and how it can benefit children and even adults. I have the utmost respect for music educators, but they are not trained to work effectively with children with special needs on non-musical goals.
How does music therapy work?
Music is a multi-sensory activity that activates multiple areas of the brain simultaneously. When a child participates in making music, his/her kinesthetic, tactile, auditory and visual systems are all engaged. This appeals to different learning styles and creates a motivating environment. Many children with special needs have an affinity for music and learn best when music is incorporated into their learning. I currently have a client who has struggled in school to learn and retain academic information. When I put this same information into a song form, he was able to easily retain the information and generalise it to other environments within a matter of weeks.
Why is music therapy almost always used for kids with special needs? Can regular kids benefit from it, too?
I think this happens for a couple of reasons. First of all, people are always looking for new ways to engage, motivate and reward children with special needs. Their needs are, in general, more complex and unique than a typical child's and so educators tend to be more creative in their approach. Children with special needs also tend to have greater challenges with attention span. Play and music-based activities are natural ways to help them attend longer. Other children can also benefit from music and play-based approaches to education. I believe that if more of these approaches were to be implemented in our school systems, the level of engagement and motivation among students would increase substantially.
While selecting a music therapist for a child with special needs, what should a parent keep in mind?
It is important to make sure that the music therapist has experience with children with special needs and is passionate about working with this population. Music therapists have different specialties and if you can find someone that focusses on special needs, that is ideal. In order to gauge progress, it is important to see if the skills learned in the music therapy sessions are being transferred into other environments. Many music therapists collect data to prove the effectiveness of their interventions. Quarterly or bi-annual progress reports can be a great way to keep track of progress.