The Desperate Need for Music in Special Education

Per the Learning Disabilities Association of America, there are 2.4 million people who suffer from a learning disability in schools, not including college. Of the 2.4 million, there are 41% of these students, who receive special education. In addition, 75% to 80% of these students have basic deficits when it comes to learning language and reading.

When it comes to music education, students who may have a disability typically work with music therapists, if their district can afford it. The therapists would use music as a way for the students to learn and acquire skills in playing an instrument, or even listening to different instruments.

The National Arts Standard says, "Music educators need to understand the students' abilities as well as areas of deficit to develop effective strategies to support [the] student's success." In the Universal Design for Learning, there are three effective learning opportunities for all students, which are to provide multiple means of representation (using visual, auditory, or kinesthetic formats for presenting information), providing multiple ways of expression (using varies options for students to demonstrate knowledge and understanding) and finally, providing multiple means of engagement (developing varies of motivating, challenging, or age/developmentally appropriate music experiences to enhance learning).

There are 2.4 million people who suffer from a learning disability in schools

—The Learning Disabilities Association of America

In Trenton, there are limited resources and they do not have the luxury to provide students with music therapists to work with them. They even had to secure funds from the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, a national organization that worked with the Trenton Public Schools to put instruments in each school in the town. Just this fall, The VH1 Save the Music Foundation completed its effort by putting instruments in all 17 schools.

“The science and studies have indicated that [music helps students],” Ted Plunkett, a Trenton Music Educator, said. “Music usually helps those with a temper and would even modify the student through the rhymes. Music therapy has been very helpful in getting these students back on track. I don’t think we would do anything differently than dealing with a normal student. As a professional, I welcome all challenges. I welcome every student that comes into our program.”

According to the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation, 83% of teachers and 73% of parents do not see music education as a luxury. They also believe that cuts to music programs are detrimental to student success. In addition, Dr. Nina Kraus's work with the Harmony Project, she states students involved in music are not only more likely to graduate high school, but also attend college.

Students in high-quality school music programs score higher on standardized tests compared to students in schools with deficient music education programs, according to the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, regardless of the socioeconomic level of the school or their school district.

In the Individuals with Disabilities Act, there are 13 different disabilities that an individual can have between the ages of 6-21. Thus, educators may have to accommodate or modify their teaching to work with these students. Teachers may even work with these students before or after school to help them better learn the music.

“A music-rich experience for children of singing, listening and moving is really bringing a very serious benefit to children as they progress into more formal learning,” says Mary Luehrisen, executive director of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation said in PBS’ The Benefits of Music Education. "When you look at children ages two to nine, one of the breakthroughs in that area is music’s benefit for language development, which is so important at that stage. While children come into the world ready to decode sounds and words, music education helps enhance those natural abilities. Growing up in a musically rich environment is often advantageous for children’s language development."

As a professional, I welcome all challenges. I welcome every student that comes into our program.

—Ted Plunkett

According to The Understood for Learning and Attention Issues, 66% of students suffering from a learning disability are boys. Their research shows an even split between girls and boys, who have trouble reading. In many states, also according to the same report, there's an over representation of black and Hispanic students identified with a learning disability and receiving special education services.

Only 12-to-26% of high school students with a learning disability have average or above-average scores on math and reading assessments. According to the Tremaine Foundation, 79% of American believe that children learn in different ways. Plus, 96% of parents think that with proper teaching kids can make up for their learning disabilities.

The Trenton Public Schools is a made up of predominately African-American students. According to interim Superintendent of School's Lucy Feria's "The District's Focused Work: District Goals, Superintendent's Priorities, District's Theory of Action and the Alignment," the fourth goal is to enhance human capital policies and procedures. The district goal is to implement changes in policies and procedures as they related to human capital to better manage teacher effectiveness and positive student achievement.

"One thing I think needs to be done is to bring out awareness," Plunkett added. "Because of the lack of mainstreaming and the minority of these types of students, they're not getting a big voice. There's not very much advocacy with these types of students. We may discover from your project there may need to be a lot more done than that may be pretty obvious. We need to look at new ways, which we identify and recognize that this is a very serious matter.

"If it wasn't for Trenton Makes Music, there may not be a voice, like in years past, because right now in the public schools, especially public education in music, there's not much that's coming across our desks in terms of guidelines or new things that need to be done with regards to students with disabilities. When we do get one that's with an extreme disability, we don't have a curriculum or anything that's etched in stone on how to effectively train these students. That's because of the ineffective ways in the public schools today. I'm not saying we're not prepared for it, but there really needs to be someone out there to advocate for these students.”

I'm not saying we're not prepared for it, but there really needs to be someone out there to advocate for these students.

—Ted Plunkett

According to The Benefits of Music Education, the PBS program, the brain of a musician, even a young one, works different than a non-musician. A study, which was led by Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, and Gottfried Schluag, a professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, which was showcased in the PBS programming, found changes in the brain images of children, who underwent 15 months of weekly instruction and practice. The students that received music instruction had improved sound discrimination and fine motor tasks, and brain imaging showed changes to the networks in the brain associated with those abilities, according to the Dana Foundation.

“The development of language over time tends to enhance parts of the brain that help process music,” Dr. Kyle Pruett said, a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and a practicing musician, in the PBS program. “Language competence is at the root of social competence. Musical experience strengthens the capacity to be verbally competent.

“We have some pretty good data that music instruction does reliably improve spatial-temporal skills in children over time. These skills come into play in solving multistep problems one would encounter in architecture, engineering, math, art, gaming, and especially working with computers."

The best way to help these students is to raise awareness. People know that music is a developmental tool and encourages both emotional and intellectual growth. As Ted Plunkett said, "there needs to be someone out there to advocate for these students." That someone is not just the teacher working with the student in need, but the other teachers and students at the school, and the community in which the student lives. Everyone has a role in improving the lives of the special learners, and the very first steps involve spreading that awareness. The more people that know of both the problem and the solution, the closer these students come to the educational experience they deserve.

Spread the word! Raise Awareness!

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