I am frequently asked how to determine whether or not a student should be recommended for a music therapy evaluation. I will focus this discussion on assessment requests in the public education setting, but many of the ideas may be applicable across other settings such as working with clients in the home or in facilities like hospitals or nursing homes.
Teachers, parents, diagnosticians and other staff who would like to recommend a student for a music therapy evaluation should first realize that music therapy is a related service. As a related service, a school district is not required to provide music therapy unless there is sufficient evidence that music therapy will be a significant factor in the educational progress of the student. In other words, the student would experience slower or less pronounced success in meeting educational goals and objectives without the implementation of specially developed music activities.
Educators should understand that the key words to keep in mind are, "significant," and "unique." These ideas will help provide a framework for discussion about individual clients who seem to have responses to music. Here are some do's and don'ts while observing students before recommending them for music therapy assessments.
Don't think that your student needs to have music therapy just because he likes to watch children's cartoons like Bob the Builder or Blue's Clues. Television is often a powerful visual medium that most children enjoy, but their interest in the programs is not necessarily a result of the music in the shows.
Don't recommend your student for a music therapy assessment after observing that he frequently sings to himself. In my experience, this is often a stereotypic behavior and not an indication that singing could successfully be used to help the student make progress on educational objectives.
Don't suggest that a student needs an evaluation because parents have reported that he likes to listen to the radio in the car or seems to get excited about music stimuli.
Most children have an affinity for music and enjoy music-based activities. Music is often a powerful and effective way to complement regular teaching methods and should be used as long as it is effective. Establishing music therapy services as part of an Individual Education Plan or IEP, however, should be done with great care.
Do consider asking for a music therapy assessment if you have observed music stimuli or activities to be a unique and effective motivator. Many children with disabilities require consistent and concrete motivators in order to make an effort at working on educational goals. For some children, music is one of the few motivators that works with these students. I have provided therapy for several children who only responded to food rewards and music. Music stimuli and activities became very important when the food rewards were faded over time for health reasons.
Do make notes of unique instances where music activities and stimuli seem to increase appropriate verbalizations and vocalizations with students. Many students who qualify for music therapy will sing words they will not speak and will also provide verbalizations in response to music, but do not verbalize in the regular classroom setting when given non-musical prompts.
Do think about using music to help students who significantly increase there attention to music stimuli and provide more focus and attention to task during music activities. I have found that children who can focus better during music activities often decrease inappropriate behaviors and have a better chance for learning information.
Do record examples of students remembering academic concepts better when it is paired effectively with music. Music is often used in regular education to help teach skills and improve memory. For some children with disabilities, music is indispensable as a mnemonic hook for targeted academic information.
Preparing a decision to recommend a student for a music therapy evaluation should be undertaken as a team effort. I advise educators to independently record significant or unique instances where music seems to be a key element in a student's success. All of the observations can then be compared together to determine if there are enough instances of music being a prime factor in the progress of a student that an official assessment should be proposed. I have only listed a few examples of things to look for when considering a music therapy assessment recommendation, but they should help to make sense of the correct procedure. Further examples of how music significantly assisted various clients can be found in Schoolhouse Stories.