Tags: Disability | Music In The Classroom | SENCO Week

This week, continuing our subject-specific guidance, we’re looking at how teachers and TAs can support pupils with SEN in music lessons, as well as how music may be used in other situations.

Support for SENCOs

Music across the curriculum

Music to ‘settle’ children entering the hall for assembly is now used in many schools to good effect and can significantly reduce incidences of low-level disruption on such occasions. Teachers have also found it useful as a calming influence in some classrooms and though it certainly can’t be claimed to be a ‘cure-all’, it’s certainly worth a try in this respect.

There are conflicting views on what has come to be known as ‘The Mozart Effect’ − using music to enhance learning, but researchers have found that language skills and, specifically, the ability to differentiate more easily between sounds, are more developed in children who are exposed to certain forms of music, and especially to those who learn to play an instrument. This obviously has implications for teaching children with below-average reading or speech abilities. (The THRASS Sing-a-long Family Reading Project uses songs that parents and others can sing with children to explain the 44 sounds and 120 main spelling choices of English.)

Music can also aid memory, and musical times-tables, ‘alphabet tunes’, etc, are much used with young children. But older learners can also benefit from this approach and setting words to music is often effective in helping children to learn and remember key words or formulas. Creating raps about ‘slavery’ or ‘rainforests’ is often a favourite activity and really helps pupils to remember what they have learned. Music is also a major creator of atmosphere and emotions, so, for example, engendering empathy is often greatly enhanced by playing appropriate songs. Music has an important part to play in kinaesthetic learning. In science, for example, students may learn about the difference between the behaviour of molecules in solid, liquid and gaseous form by moving about in groups. Slow background music represents solids. It quickens as the groups become liquids, and becomes more manic as groups representing gas molecules bounce off each other. The students are having a great time, and they remember what they have learned.


There are great opportunities nowadays for children with learning difficulties and disabilities to gain access to music through technology. For example the Sound beam − device that works on ultrasound. If you break the beam with movement then it triggers a musical note − it’s a bit like a keyboard in open space. Readers in mainstream schools can learn a lot about these resources from their neighbouring special school, or look up the Drake music project.

Music lessons

The music room/classroom Good organisation and familiarity within a classroom/space are important for children with SEN. Consider:

  • placing chairs in a semi-circle around a piano/keyboard/djembe or other instrument to make a focus point for pupils entering the room
  • facing all of your pupils within the circle/semi-circle: eye contact for those who can see is imperative, and a balance of sound for those who can’t defines and improves their listening skills
  • keeping instruments/beaters/folders/ICT equipment/written work in the same place with clear labels/symbols to improve independence
  • maintaining the same set-up, allowing you to move students around within it. For those with Asperger’s syndrome or autism a change of any kind within a lesson can prove to be traumatic so if the space itself remains the same the pupils find it easier to accept a change of focus within the lesson.

Starting and finishing

The use of songs to start and end a lesson provides a good structure to lessons. Taking a chord sequence from any song and creating ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ lyrics (the best songs are the ones which call for a response). Popular songs or riffs that work well include 12-bar blues; Herbie Hancock, Cantaloupe Island and various pop songs with recognisable chord sequences.


Start work on notation by showing pupils how to graphically notate what they hear on a CD. This links a sound to a mark on a piece of paper, you can then extend this work. Students may need a lot of support for this, so knowledgeable TAs are a real bonus. Tried and tested topics include:

  • The sea: Using a pentatonic scale, free composing and improvising, use percussion (tuned and untuned). Use extracts from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes as focus for listening.
  • Diwali: Use the story of Rama and Sita and set it to music. This gets the students listening to non western music and composing their own, identifying aurally instruments which are not familiar to them.
  • Jazz and blues: ‘Basslines’ and ‘riffs’ are the key words. Obviously, differentiation is needed to cater for those students who are not as coordinated (with TA support).The repetition of riffs is a great motivator for autistic students.

SEN News

If you missed the SENCO Update conference in London last week, look out for the next one in the autumn − great value for money.

The conference was well attended and delegates were brought up to date on SEN/inclusion issues by a number of impressive speakers. Mary Warnock herself was there to explain her concern about how some LAs are currently interpreting inclusion’. The fact that they are limiting the types of setting available for children with SEN (by closing special schools and units in many cases), means that many parents are left with little or no choice of school and the end result is a far cry from ‘inclusion’ for a significant number of youngsters. Richard Rieser, director of Disability Equality in Education addressed the issue of why schools are finding the implementation of disability equality so hard. He listed the following points to be considered:

  • access to teaching and learning
  • disability equality training − welcoming difference
  • self-evaluation − how inclusive are we?
  • effective outreach by special schools to develop capacity in mainstream
  • differentiated systems to help children with challenging behaviour (SEAL, time out, mentoring).

John Bercow was unable to attend the conference due to paternity leave for a new baby, and so Mary Daly stepped in to dyslexia, speech, language and communication in this, its first year and there are useful resources available on the website for SENCOs to use with colleagues. You may find the resource rather more than you have time to use with staff, but take a look and sift through it − there is some quality material. The suggestion that schools should seek input from a speech and language therapist to deliver this training however, met with derision from many SENCOs. They wanted to know the secret of finding/deploying such a person. The answer seems to be for schools to get together and employ their own SLT − apparently there are a number without jobs! NB We mentioned a new report on SEN in last week’s news but omitted to give its title: Learning the Hard Way: A Strategy for Special Educational Needs. Its key policy recommendations include:

1. An overhaul of the admissions system to make it easier for parents to choose the right school for their child.

2. Consistent, comparable information to be provided for parents by local authorities.

3. Turning statements into ‘personal budgets’ which parents could choose how to spend and backdating payment to schools for statemented children.

4. Division of the statementing process so that the assessment and funding function would be split.

5. Some in-classroom reforms − including offering more trained specialist teachers instead of TAs.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2008

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.