Using Music for Social Skill Development in Schools
The school environment is an important place to develop and practice social skills. Students are constantly having peer interactions during classroom learning and during less-structured recess, lunch and free time. Not only is having strong social skills useful when building friendships and meaningful relationships in school; social skills are also needed to participate and interact in the classroom setting to learn the lessons being taught!
Social Skills in the Classroom
Music therapy groups are a great way for students to practice social skills in the classroom setting. Music is an inherently social activity, and something that can bring joy to the classroom. A board-certified music therapist can use music beyond fun and joy to support skill building in a variety of domains. Music Therapy can be used to target social, communication, emotional, cognitive, and sensorimotor skills. Music therapy provides students with engaging interventions that encourage them to participate and interact with one another. Music Therapists can even create opportunities for students to work on their IEP goals during the groups they lead!
Music Therapy Social Skills Assessment
Though I can target a variety of skills through music therapy, this post is all about social skill development in the classroom setting and I love working on social skills during my music therapy groups in schools! When I begin a new group, I assess each student’s current level of social interaction. I use the Music Therapy Social Skills Assessment (MTSSA) to do this. The MTSSA uses different social and prompt hierarchies to assess the students current social level, through an evidence-based approach. The MTSSA uses individualized benchmarks to build up social skills throughout the school year, providing a clear framework for the therapist to follow.
Once the assessments are complete, I create goals and benchmarks for each student in the class based on their current social level. Next comes the fun part of music therapy! It is my job to create effective and engaging interventions to target these goals. "What does that look like?" you might ask. Interventions and strategies vary based on the needs of the classroom, but here are some examples of how I target social skills in the school setting:
Sample School Session Layout
I work with monthly topics/themes of session plans to provide consistency to the groups. Each week the students can continue to practice and build a skill with a song that has become more familiar, without songs becoming exhaustive.
For example, in April I might do a rain theme with songs such as “Singing in the Rain,” “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons, or making our own thunder storm with body percussion.
I start the session off with a hello or check in/greeting and review guidelines and expectations for the group.
In many of my high school groups, we work as a team to write a “guidelines rap” at the start of the semester. In the rap, the students work together to write guidelines that they feel are important to remember in the group (hands to self, follow directions, be respectful). Once the rap is written at the start of the school year, we save it to rap at the start of each group with a simple beat on the iPad.
Social skills can be complex to work on because they incorporate elements from other skills such as sustained attention, communication, and sensory regulation. This is why I think it is very important to set students up for success by creating clear expectations.
In that same vain, after the rap, we engage in a sensory intervention to help regulate for the rest of the session ahead. This could be a movement activity with just our bodies or with a motor prop such as scarves, stretchy band, or parachute. The motor prop would depend on the age and needs of the group members.
Now that our brains and bodies are regulated, I often do an instrument warm up to practice attention, encourage engagement in the group, and to get comfortable playing an instrument.
After warming the brain up, I usually move onto “the hard work” where we really try to target the student’s social goal directly for one or two interventions. As the music therapist this is your chance to get creative and think “how can I translate this social skill into music?!” For example, I love this simple rhythm stick intervention to practice different social interactions:
Each student gets one rhythm stick and has to tap their stick with a peer’s to a chant or song with a steady, repetitive rhythm.
By playing together like this, each student must attend to and sustain an interaction with their peer, similar to how they must in play or conversation.
I might also target these hard social skills through songwriting, music performance, or through music and technology - it all depends on each individual's goals and the needs of the students in the group.
When the hard work is finished, I provide more opportunities for sensory regulation/relaxation using sensory motor props, the ocean drum, or guided deep breathing with music.
Finally, we check out with each student and sing goodbye!
Of course, every group is different and has different needs, but these are some structures that I find lead to a successful social skills group in the classroom setting. Personally, I believe that social skills are incredibly important for students to work on in school. Not only to help meet their varying needs, but also to bring students joy through opportunities to connect, relate to each other, and build compassion for others!
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