Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Relax! How to Use Music and Relaxation to Help Your Students With Disabilities.
I have had the opportunity to lead several music assisted relaxation groups in public school special education classrooms. These groups have included a range of ages and types of disabilities including Down Syndrome, autism, mental retardation and Cerebral Palsy. One of the key points I like to emphasize with my clients and their instructors is that learning to relax can become a conditioned response. This means that relaxing can be practiced so that it is more effective and useful in the future.
Generally the clients that I work with in the special education classrooms do not have typical life stressors that would induce anxiety and require relaxation, but there are other reasons that relaxation can be an important tool for them and their teachers. I have found that many of the special education students are easily overwhelmed with environmental stimuli in their daily environment. Most teachers recognize this situation and have created quiet areas of their room that have been somewhat sectioned off and made comfortable for students to experience some quiet time without so much of the distractions of the classroom.
In other situations, students sometimes become agitated or emotionally upset without apparent cause. When this happens, it has been helpful to have a familiar music relaxation or music listening strategy already in place as part of the behavior intervention plan. In addition, the students may also benefit from social interaction, gross motor movement, stretching and opportunities to become peer models or leaders as they participate in small group relaxation activities.
I have used various music assisted relaxation activities with school-age students. There is not a specific protocol that must be followed, but rather some general suggestions and ideas to reference as you implement relaxation activities into your classroom:
1. Music choice - Music for relaxation should be chosen according to several criteria. The most important quality of the music is a slow tempo with a predictable underlying rhythmic pulse. I recommend a tempo of about 60 - 80 beats per minute. Music without lyrics is recommended, but there may be some singing if it does not distract too much attention from the experience. The melody should be pleasant and part of traditional music and not atonal or experimental. Try to use songs that do not have sudden changes in tempo, dynamics or unexpected starts or stops. The melody should also stay in the mid-range and not sound extremely low or high. There are some very good songs by Enya, Kevin Kern and Daniel Kobialka that I have used in my groups.
2. Facilitator - The person doing the relaxation facilitating, either a teacher or student, should use a calm, steady voice. Practice speaking slowly and clearly, pausing often to listen to the music. The music should be loud enough to mask unwanted environmental sounds, but not so loud that the facilitator has to speak any louder than he or she would in a normal conversation. The facilitator should sit in a chair and demonstrate the breathing or stretching movements.
3. Breathing - Breathing is the foundation for these relaxation groups. Start out the group with several deep cleansing breaths by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Continue the relaxation by practicing some deep breathing in and out using slow eight or ten count intervals. Breathing can be verbally reinforced by describing the "revitalizing," "fresh," "relaxing," air going in and the "discomfort," "anxiety," and "stress," leaving the body. After a few minutes of breathing, the facilitator should encourage the group to get more comfortable in their chairs, close their eyes if desired, and breathe normally. Breathing should fall into a steady, relaxed rhythm.
4. Stretching - I encourage breathing and "stretching" as the main components of the relaxation sessions for these groups with students who have disabilities. Simple gross motor movements demonstrated by the facilitator provide "concrete" actions for the group to follow. I usually do shoulder rolls forward and backward, reaching for the ceiling and the floor and slowly tilting the head from side to side and forward as the basic movements. Other stretches can be done by reaching forward or sweeping the arms up and down as if doing very slow jumping jacks. Combine some breathing in and out on selected motions for added effect.
5. Imagery - For groups that do not have people with disabilities it is very effective to use some kind of imagery to facilitate the relaxation. Suggestions include imagining a warm light that slowly warms and relaxes each part of the body or being guided to a restful place in nature where comforting sounds and worry free relaxation can take place. Most of my clients in special education do not respond well to abstract imaginations and descriptions, but music that has environmental sounds or large pictures with client preferred settings may be possible applications after a relaxation routine is familiar and established.
The relaxation experience should begin and end with similar breathing and gross motor movements. Between these times the facilitator is free to try different stretches or breathing as they wish. This allows for leadership and choice-making opportunities for the students. Picture cards that illustrate the gross motor movements can be made so that students can make a choice between pictures and then present their choice to the group. The facilitator may also pass out supportive instruments such as an ocean drum to add to the atmosphere of the experience. An 6'-10' parachute shared by the group is a wonderful way to practice slow breathing and movements!
The relaxation session should last about 5-10 minutes depending on the attention span of the participants. If this group relaxation is practiced on a regular basis, you will notice that the students will tone down their activity simply in anticipation of the experience and even more when the music begins playing. Teachers will find that just by playing the music that they regularly use for relaxation they may be able to aid a student who is upset or agitated and help them regain some self-control. The relaxation protocol may also be helpful to use on days when an unplanned change of the school schedule has disrupted the regular routine and the students are unusually off-task.
There are many applications for the use of music assisted relaxation activity in relation to objectives in a student's Individual Education Plan. Following directions, making choices, gross motor movement, counting skills, focus of attention, gesturing and verbalizing are all specific objectives that can be tracked for progress during music facilitated group relaxation.
Now...take a deep breath....exhale.....
(For teachers after a long day, take a look at this article: Instructions For Self-Guided Relaxation
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