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Music therapy: using music to teach calming strategies

Anxiety is common among children I see throughout the week. In a classroom setting anxiety can be raised by noise, other students, bright lights, not knowing what is coming next or how long the current activity will go on for. Anxiety can become exacerbated with a change in routine at school or at home or even on the way to school. During music therapy sessions we work on calming/grounding techniques using songs and chants.

Why teach skills with a song? Singing lights up many areas of the brain, not just the language centers and enhances receptive language in children on the autism spectrum. Because music activates and engages many areas of the brain the message stays with us for longer. Can you remember something you learned in song form as a child? I still remember the exact tune of my phone number song that my mother taught us. A song can be more easily accessed in times of stress when we may not be cognitively functioning at our optimal level.

During music therapy sessions we intersperse several songs that target calming techniques but all have similar elements:

1. A steady beat (moderate to slow)

2. Simple and easy to learn and remember in times of high anxiety

3. Modeling deep breathing, counting down, and deep pressure (ex. clasp hands, self hug, brush legs)

Once the children learn the songs they become magic in the classroom, I find even the teachers saying "oh I needed that!" Teachers and parents have reported that they will hear kids singing or humming these calming songs and performing the actions throughout the day. One parent shared recently that her son sang it to himself in bed one night. I have even found one running through my head at the dentist!

Other ways to reduce anxiety:

1.A visual schedule and/or a visual timer

2. Dim the lights if possible

3.Visuals to accompany the songs

4. Sensory supports and fidgets (sensory cushion, weighted lap pad, sensory toys)

When anxiety is reduced our music therapy groups become a safe place for learning, participating, and engaging with classmates.

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