Intervention Specialist Ann Ward and board certified music therapist Shelly Zeiser in the classroom at Dater Montessori.

The K-3 special education classroom at Dater Montessori is led by Ann Ward, an intervention specialist with 17 years in the classroom. At Dater Montessori, an elementary school in the Cincinnati Public school system, 99% of the students are economically disadvantaged. 21% of students have a disability, and the chronic absentee rate is 81%.  During her very challenging school day, Ms. Ward uses every tool in her well-honed educator tool kit multiple times, gliding seamlessly through the roles of teacher, seamstress, referee, disciplinarian, hugger-in-chief, traffic cop, carnival barker, nurse and even chef.

Three years ago, music therapy was introduced into this special education classroom.  Once a week, board certified music therapist Shelly Zeiser conducts a session of carefully planned music interventions designed to address the specific, and often quite challenging, behaviors in this spirited classroom.

In this model that Melodic Connections implements in 24 area classrooms, the imprint of music therapy interventions can be felt all week long, as the classroom special educator observes and participates in the music interventions, and then models them for the students when the music therapist is not present.  Music becomes a tool – not to learn about note values, pitches and scales — but to help students improve things like eye contact, impulse control and anger management.  “As a sensory and classroom management device,” Ann Ward says, “it is very effective.”

“Many of our students have challenges with anger management or impulse control,” Ann said, “One small thing can throw the whole classroom off, sometimes for the rest of the day.”  Kids in the class have a book called “Clark the Shark”, which is intended to help with impulse control.  It was such a favorite that Ann asked Shelly to create an original tune so they all could sing the book, making it even more memorable and accessible.  Now when things get tense in the classroom, everyone can sing, “What’s the rule?  Stay cool.” “It often helps to diffuse a tense situation,” Ann said.

When angry, the students can turn to “The Mad Song” to express their feelings.  When frustrated they can sing “I Need Help With That” and when more structure is needed in discussions they can all sing “Raise Your Hand and Ask Please”.  Music is familiar and comforting– so using it to move a student out of high anxiety mode can be very effective.  “When kids have a reaction,” Ms. Ward said, “emotions can get away from them.  You have to interrupt that cycle quickly or it gets out of control.”

It‘s not an accident that music is working to reduce the challenges in this very challenging classroom. Research has shown that music can create the receptivity some students need to open their minds for learning, especially in the special education classroom.  Intentionally designed music interventions have been proven to affect social skills such as eye contact, turn taking, asking for help, joint attention, and initiating and responding to a greeting.

The music-based interventions are the same ones that a student might receive in a traditional one-on-one music therapy session.  However, at a cost of $150 an hour or more, this tool is completely out of reach for families like those at Dater Montessori, many of whom don’t even have a family car.  Yet because of this program they can have daily music therapy-based interventions in the classroom and they can bring those skills home where they can help improve their relationships with parents and siblings as well.