Bridging the gap

Without putting too much emphasis on scientific research, we all respond to music in different ways, regardless of our individual abilities, interpretations, and characteristics. But rarely do we respond negatively to the steady, comforting vibrations of wavelengths traveling through the air. It does something many of us cannot even begin to comprehend, so we just sit back, relax and experience one of life’s greatest pleasures.      

“We are hard-wired for music; the brain is hard-wired for music,” said Denise Lee, a long-time music educator. Since February, Lee has been conducting a weekly “pilot” program for students in the early childhood special education programs at four local elementary schools – Enon, Ecoff, O.B. Gates, and Marguerite Christian – called “Music4Learning.”

In an email to the Village News last week, Lee stated that the goal for “Music4Learning” is “to present young children with opportunities to learn in a success-oriented and joyful manner that is natural to the child. There is a unique compatibility between early childhood learning and music structure, which inherently contains elements that serve to address sensory-motor, social, cognitive (learning), and communication development.”                                           

As students in the program are pre-school aged children experiencing developmental delays, many of which have autism, Lee feels music can be a source of communication, bridging the communication gap we often experience.   

“I still have to say, for every individual it’s going to be a little bit different,” she said. “But music is the commonality – I haven’t met a kid who doesn’t like music … every one of them benefits in a different way.   

“A lot of these kids have communication delays … I’m putting it on the basis of ‘unique’ and everybody has a style. A lot of these kids, it’s the bridge that’s missing. In early intervention, when kids are especially nonverbal, we start the connection, and we need them where they are. And they’re just wired for music. That bridges the gap.”

Lee held one of her music sessions at Enon Elementary last Tuesday for a small group of children in their early childhood special education program. For approximately a half an hour, Lee held the attention of students in the program, playing her guitar and singing songs to them and, at times, had them try to sing along. Every few moments she would switch off instruments, often incorporating percussion, handing each of them their own small hand-drum. The activity put a great deal of emphasis on following directions, Lee asking children to stop and start playing at various intervals.

According to their teacher, Melissa Samko, changes have occurred in the children since the implementation of the program into their weekly schedule.
“I’ve seen changes in their learning, most specifically in their communication and their social skills,” she said. “And I think they pick up that turn-taking form the music, and also that connection with communication.”

She gave an example of the program’s impact on her students, expressing how one little boy, who is usually very withdrawn, that Monday before had reached for the hand of his friend on the playground. She said it was something they had never before seen, that she had also seen children who weren’t speaking before Lee came in, now “opening up.” As they develop a foundation of speaking skills and “scaffolding” has been built, the children interact and talk more, she said.  

Also, for a group of children whose attention span is minimal, which usually lasts five to 10 minutes at a time, Samko said that through “Music4Learning” the young students manage to sit for the entire duration of the thirty-minute music session, with only a few, brief distractions.   

“At this level, three to five, so much can happen, and I feel that it is crucial that children are reached at this age,” said Samko. “If that scaffolding is built it will carry them up through higher grades in education. And research has shown that this is when their brains are little sponges, and they take all of these things in and process them.”
Lee, who studied music education at Shenandoah Conservatory and is now a music therapist and board-certified music educator, conceived the idea for the program after doing an internship at Enon a couple years ago. And in 2009, she pitched the idea for “Music4Learning” to Chesterfield County Public Schools. Knowing that appropriately funding the program could present a problem, especially for a county steadily slashing the pay of its educators, Lee presented her idea to the John Randolph Foundation, in turn receiving a grant from them for just under $4,000.  

“It’s all about grants,” said Lee. “If it weren’t for foundations like John Randolph, there is no money in education right now; nowhere to be found.” Lee has used the funds available through the grant to purchase an assortment of instruments, a CD player, and tactile-based objects for the children to enjoy music at the four schools.    
When Lee visited Samko’s class last week, Josie Craighead-Bailey, a grant officer with the John Randolph Foundation was in attendance, administering a “follow-up” on the program. According to Craighead-Bailey, the foundation’s focus is primarily on health and education.

“We see health as far beyond the absence of disease and infirmity,” she said. “It’s more or less the physical, mental and social well-being of the person … and for the amount of investment we’ve made, we thought it was an excellent opportunity to address autism in the public school system in a way that we hadn’t seen before.”  
She said the program could be used as a state-wide model “because attention is paid to autism and those types of cognitive disabilities, but a lot of times there are students that don’t get the attention that they really should be getting,” said Craighead-Bailey. “And knowing that how passionate Denise was about the project and the learning she brought to it, it was sort of a no-brainer for us, in terms of education, quality of life for the kids and their health.”  Lee is currently pursuing additional grant funding to expand the services to the early childhood special education program throughout Chesterfield schools, and by the fall will be conducting the program at one more elementary school – Curtis, right here in Chester.  

“The normalization, the activity itself, lets people of all different abilities combine in a social activity,” said Lee. Music again bridges the gap; with inclusion, everybody is a music maker here, not ‘enabled’ or ‘disabled.’ Music is a way that they’re healthy and that is true for every individual.”

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