By Catherine Nielsen, MT-BC,
Catherine is the founder, and director of The Palm Beach Music Therapy Institute,
home educator, teacher, therapist, mother of two.

Our topic today applies to anyone working with young children.

I have worked as a music therapist professionally for almost 10 years. In music therapy, our PBMTI team and I develop specialized treatment plans for groups or individuals, using music to help them meet their goals.

I am a teacher, a mother, and music therapist, and in all of these settings I use music.
And you can too!

In this article, I will share tools from my experiences, not only for professional music therapists, but also for parents, teachers, and other professionals working with children. With this post, I hope to give you some practical ways YOU can use music to promote learning, growth, and development of your child.

I grew up in a home filled with music. Later, in my coursework as music therapist I began to understand more of the ways music shaped my childhood – besides just enjoyment. In our home, music was used for learning (presidents, planets, United States, and more!), developing strong family relationships, building confidence, developing self-discipline, and reaching out into the community. I learned that with music there is more than meets the eye! Yes, it is enjoyable, but neurological, physical, and emotional changes are happening when a child is involved in music.

Children have a love of learning, succeeding, mastering new skills, and exploring the world. In order to learn, they have to be able to attend to a task. Music can improve on-task behavior, and today we will review some of the reasons why.

Why / How Does Music Help a Child to Learn?

These are some of the many of the ways music can be an effective tool in children’s learning, growth and development.

Music provides structure for learning: helps children organize information.
Music is a memory device: to learn new behaviors, academic skills, or challenging tasks.
Music is familiar.
Music facilitates interaction / communication.
Music helps develop rapport.
Music energizes learning activities.
Music helps focus concentration.
Music enhances imagination and creativity.
Music stimulates brain function.
Music provides a safe environment.
Music is enjoyable – it can make learning fun!

In order to learn new skills, whether academic, developmental, behavioral, physical, social, or emotional, your student or child has to be able to give attention to that task or skill.

Here are some ways you can use music every day as you parent, teach, or work with your students.

How to Use Music to Keep Kids on Task:

1. Use Music To….Develop Listening Skills

Example: Sing a song, but leave out a word “Row Your Boat, Life is but a ___.” This exercise encourages participation using a music prompt.

2. Use Music To….Teach Impulse Control

Example: Play a steady beat on a drum, and STOP. Children follow stop start cues with movement to music, or dancing during the beat. STOP immediately when music stops. Allow other students to be the “leader” as their peers follow their cues.

3. Use Music To…Maintain Attention

Example: Try singing (instead of speaking) directions for a desired behavior.
“Everybody sit down on the mat.” –Sing after an activity, or cue.
“If you have a red maraca put it in the basket.”
“Everybody’s eyes are looking at me.”

4. Use Music To…Reinforce Routine, & To Learn New Skills

Example: Add new information into a familiar song to reinforce learning.
“This is the way I brush my teeth (3x repeat)… early in the morning
This is the way I put on my socks (shoes / clothes)… early in the morning
This is the way I eat my breakfast …early in the morning

Considerations in Music with Young Children:

Each child is unique. The way a child responds to music, individual learning style, and the types of music that will work well for each will be different depending on the child. Below are some concepts to consider when you are selecting music for your student.

Choose music that is age appropriate.
What is the child’s music background?
What are the child’s music preferences?
What is the current role of music in student’s life?
Consider sensory needs: the tempo, style, volume of music can be agitating or upsetting to some children if it is too stimulating or complicated for them.
Consider physical needs: does the child need an adapted instrument? What is the child’s current level fine or gross motor functioning?
Consult with family and caregivers.
Be flexible. If one type of music, or instrument does not elicit the desired response, try again.

If you are a parent or a professional with a child who has physical, emotional, or mental health needs, we recommend contacting a professional music therapist about a music therapy program. If you are out of the area, we can put you in touch!

If you have questions or comments about this post, the benefits of music for growth and development in young children, or about music therapy, please post them below or get in touch.