I have talked before about managing behavior in group settings. As a therapist, I also frequently work with clients on an individual basis. After talking about some clients with one of my therapists I thought that the subject deserved to be revisited. Music therapists are often called upon to work with the most volatile children because music seems to be a motivator or sometimes a calming influence. When I work with clients who have been reported as having episodes of spitting, hitting, throwing things, or even self-abuse I usually don't see these inappropriate behaviors during music therapy because the kids love the music so much. Their interest in music, however, is not enough to guarantee appropriate behaviors. There are several musical and non-musical things that can be done to increase the chances of having productive work session with students who require behavior intervention strategies.
1. Try using a picture schedule for the activities you will be doing. I have a picture that represents each song or activity, beginning with a Hello song and ending with a Goodbye song. The student is expected to take each picture off the schedule in the order of the activities. A picture schedule is helpful because it provides a visual reference that can be used to redirect attention. It also gives the student an indication of where they are in time. Once a student is familiar with the general flow of a music therapy session, the picture schedule allows him to know how much longer he needs to maintain his focus of attention and behavior. The schedule can also be set up to allow breaks or rewards as indicated by pictures. It is much easier for a child to respond to first/then expectations if he has the visual representation.
2. Keep the session or work time short when working with a new student or situation. The idea is to aim for success by completing a session from beginning to end without any major behavior incidents. Once a successful routine has been established, the session time can be increased incrementally across sessions.
3. I have sometimes had success in using a visual timer. This type of timer can indicate how long the student has left in the session or how long before he or she can obtain a specific reward. I like to find out what object rewards or activities the student receives in the classroom and you may have to use those in the music session until a pattern of appropriate behavior has been established. Ideally, we want to give the child a musical reward so that if he or she can maintain good behavior for the specified amount of time, then a favorite instrument or song is presented.
4. Keep the session flowing and moving at a good pace. I counsel my therapists that during music therapy sessions there should be a music stimulus as much as possible. Suggestions for this idea include singing instructions such as raising a hand to make a choice or putting instruments back into a bag. This helps to keep the music going and limits down time in between activities. I see the most aberrant behavior in between activities so it is also important to have all materials in order and easily accessible to minimize dead time.
5. Focus on the positive behaviors. It is too easy to become preoccupied with the unwanted inappropriate behaviors and forget about any good moments that might occur. Positive verbal praise should be a given for anything the student does correctly or well. The reinforcement should be immediately after the good behavior and varied in content. Specific and creative verbal praise is much better than a redundant, “good job!”