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Music Therapy Brings Sense of Normalcy to Students

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In normal times, the excitement is palpable.

“They are so excited to participate in music that when Mrs. Haleigh gets here, everybody runs,” said Karen Irons, a special education teacher at the Frisco ISD Early Childhood School (ECS).

The 3-year-olds in Irons’ classroom look forward to their music therapy sessions twice a month.

“It’s such a fun experience, they absolutely love it,” Irons said.

In FISD, board-certified music therapists like Haleigh Beaird visit students in dozens of centralized special education classrooms on a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis. They also support individual students with their unique educational goals.

Music therapy involves using music to help students progress in areas unrelated to music. The goals vary widely depending on the student’s age and disability.

“These goals include anything from counting to reading and pre-reading skills, coping skills to regulate behavior, following directions, identifying safety signs, communication and social skills – you name it!” said Patina Jackson, another of FISD’s music therapists. “We address these goals through singing and instrument play and may also utilize visual aids, manipulatives such as puppets, and props like parachutes and scarves, too!”

The students in Irons’ classroom enjoy playing with bells and rhythm sticks. They practice sharing, taking turns and following directions.

“What is really great is that every child is engaged,” Irons said. “Music speaks to a lot of kids, especially students who are nonverbal. They may not be able to speak, but they can sing and they know the words to the songs so it reaches each child on whatever level they are ready to accept it.”

When Frisco ISD schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, music therapists had to find creative ways to deliver the same services.

“The students we serve are used to routines and highly structured environments, so having consistency is more important than ever,” Jackson said. “If we can maintain that consistency with a familiar face and familiar song, that is a big win.”

Music therapists have recorded countless videos of themselves singing and playing instruments, which special education teachers have helped pass along to families.

“Most of our students cannot effectively access these themselves without parent support,” Jackson said.

“Our goal is to get these materials to parents in a way that they can access and hopefully utilize along with everything else that they are trying to manage at home.”

Parents are encouraged to share videos of their children engaging with the songs or can complete simple check-lists to provide feedback about their progress. Many of the songs are the same ones students are accustomed to hearing in class or individual therapy.

“It’s been so cool to see the videos parents have sent of their kids singing the songs or participating,” Irons said.

Among those sharing videos was Caroline Halbert, whose 3-year-old daughter Presley attends a half-day program at ECS. Watch the Halberts' video.

“Presley was born blind and has always loved music,” Halbert said. “It's been a huge part of her life and has made her smile since she was a few weeks old. She loves music therapy and we are thankful that it has been able to continue with eLearning.

“She gets so excited when she hears Mrs. Haleigh's voice when we play her videos. She practices what she's learned in the songs and sings them throughout the day. Using music, Presley is learning a wide variety of general concepts as well as communication skills. Her interests are valued, and she is able to approach a structured learning opportunity in a fun and meaningful way.”

Students and their progress are top of mind for everyone.

“I want parents to know that we are giving 110% to do what's best for families and help them support their children,” Jackson said. “If they can’t access all the resources or it’s taking longer than they’d hoped, we are right there with them in this uncharted territory. We know they are doing their best to support their kids in an extremely difficult situation.”

Communication and relationships between staff and families have been key in navigating the challenges presented by eLearning.

“We have witnessed unparalleled collaboration, teamwork, unity and care by the phenomenal Frisco ISD families and staff,” said Garrett Jackson, director of special education. “As we continue educational services, we are adhering to legally mandated timelines while providing a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in a new format.”

A new format for students who are especially accustomed to routine.

“He doesn't adjust well to sudden changes and needs daily structure,” Stacha English said of her son Anthony, a second grader at Elliott Elementary who has benefited from music therapy. “It's important for him to continue the services because it's something that calms him and he's learning so much from it.”

“While helping students address their educational goals is our top priority, if students can watch our videos and think, 'I know this person and this is what I normally do,' providing that normalcy in the midst of all this chaos may have the greatest impact of all,” Jackson said.

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