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The potential preventive promise of music

I became a parent around the time I started working in childhood mental health, providing music therapy to children with complex trauma histories. Through these experiences, I became aware both personally and professionally of the profound impact a child’s early environment has on their social and emotional development outcomes and later behavioral and academic ones.

With this in mind, I invited Dr. Varvara Pasiali, music therapy professor at Queens University and co-author of a recently published article in the Journal of Music Therapy, to share about her music-based social skills training program and the importance of supporting individuals who live in low resource communities.

Q: What does it mean to live in a “low” or “limited resource” community? What are potential developmental implications of doing so?

In communities, crises and stressors may happen on an individual level (e.g., sickness, mental health issues), family level (financial issues, divorce, poverty), or societal issues (e.g., poor schools, unsafe neighborhood). Constant, cumulative, and prolonged exposure to crises can deplete an individual’s capacity to deal and cope with life adversities and stressors. I use the words “low” or “limited” as umbrella terms for individuals who are more likely to be exposed to multiple crises.

Individuals who live in low resource communities may not have equitable opportunities in society. Using the term low or limited resources removes the stigma of referring to children, families, and communities as “at risk.” Low resources inexorably reflect social inequities in the type of supports specific individuals may have (or need) to thrive. The conception of low resources does not simply refer to income, but also to social capital, inclusion, and exclusion. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has developed an excellent conceptualization of community disadvantage.

Because the developmental implications are complex and multi-faceted, low resources is a term that may propel us towards action. The million-dollar questions to consider are: “What type of supports or interventions do we need to consider as music therapists when working with individuals with low resources?” and “In what ways does participation in music-based experiences become a resource as we engage others in music therapy?”

Q: What unique role do music therapists have when working with youth in limited resource communities?

Individuals who live in low resource communities may not have equitable opportunities in society. Using the term low or limited resources removes the stigma of referring to children, families, and communities as “at risk.” Low resources inexorably reflect social inequities in the type of supports specific individuals may have (or need) to thrive.

It is all about optimization of the approach the therapist will use when embedding themselves in a community and working with different individuals. In the face of social inequities and barriers that individuals in low resource communities may face, in what ways can music therapists provide interventions that serve as buffers shielding those from identified risks?

I view the role of the therapist as a resource strengthener and collaborator. In this study, we found that the collaboration of the teacher was central to reinforcing the social competence skills we were aiming to strengthen in the youth. In general, the ultimate goal is for participation in music therapy to meet unique needs and scaffold adaptive outcomes. Those needs (outcomes) vary from community to community and from individual to individual.

Throughout our study, we sought to create a program focused on social skills development. We found that music making enabled us to connect with the children at our research site. That connection translated to the children being eager to participate. However, our work would not have been possible without the collaboration and support from the afterschool teachers. It was a team effort.

A program using music-based experiences is unique because: (a) songs serve as ways to memorize information and new skills, (b) active music making allows for non-verbal engagement and interactions among group members, (c) playing collaboratively can reinforce positive relationships, and (d) rhythmic synchronization has the potential of becoming a salient feature in group cohesion.

Q: How did you (and your students) notice the children changing during the course of the music therapy program you implemented? Was this reflected in study outcomes?

The most profound changes we noticed were in musical interactions—many children in our group were related (siblings or cousins), so when they were playing collaboratively it was impressive. Sibling rivalry, as reported by the teacher, was often preventing the children in the program from working collaboratively. These collaborative musical interactions became a holding space for facilitating cooperation and on task behaviors. Moreover, we believe that active music making helped the children focus and sustain attention. Practicing such collaborative interactions musically may have translated to the positive changes in communication we noted as an outcome. Furthermore, the collaborative music making ability of the children in the group increased gradually over the course of our sessions.

Also, it may have helped that participants in our study learned social skills information embedded in the songs we taught them. The therapeutic experiences we provided targeted a specific set of skills which we introduced in a step-by-step process through the lyrics. The teacher observed the children singing the songs throughout the week. Our songs were vehicles for delivering information and the repetition of singing those songs throughout the week may have assisted in committing skills and concepts to memory.

Q: What is next in terms of your clinical and research work with the children in your study?

Through my clinical work, I would like to explore further the notion that beat synchronization and music improvisation are pathways for social awareness. Specific to my research, I would like to continue developing the music-based social skills program and re-implement it in a follow-up multi-site research study using comparison groups.

Featured image credit: Guitar by the river by Cecile Hournau on Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Thom Crown

    Its so easy to under estimate the power of music in society. Good article.

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