Advocating for Students with Special Needs

Brent Merritt • August 2023ChoralCorner • August 20, 2023

I am interested in what we can do as a profession to address the musical needs and quality of lives of our children and adults with special needs. I understand this issue may not be everyone’s strength or focus, but I want to share with you a few words about my experience. After attending an interest session at the ACDA National Conference in Chicago featuring Alice Parker working with a choir of mentally-challenged adults, I felt like beginning a class for our students at Scott County High School. I am in my second year of partnering with our Highly Structured Classroom teachers to offer our FMD students a music class. Like many of you, I had little or no training in college to prepare me for working with children with exceptional needs. The birth of my son, Will, who has Down Syndrome, has given me a more direct purpose in developing this new set of skills. I have had the opportunity to attend a few conferences where I went to sessions sponsored by the VSA (Very Special Arts) folks and received an amazing book of lesson plans filled with ideas for not only music students but visual arts and dance students. My group meets once each week and required only a minor adjustment to my schedule on Wednesdays. Students from our fourth-hour piano class serve as student aides along with others from my advanced choir who wish to be involved. The teachers have been phenomenal in their willingness to help and with encouragement. The kids are awesome. I have found this to be a truly joyful time, and I love the relationships I’ve developed with each of these wonderful students. 

Some of the units/lessons/activities we have used include: 

• Echo singing and clapping rhythms 

• Singing songs, many with motions. We sing songs celebrating holidays or current events. For example, we recently sang patriotic songs that were sung during the president’s inauguration. The kids love Disney songs, new and old! 

• Piano. We learned about the keyboard and the notes on the keyboard. We have learned to play simple songs on the keyboard. 

• Rhythm and note reading. The students have become excellent rhythm readers. 

• We watched “Stomp” videos and learned how music can be created in many different ways. 

• We watched unique music/animated performances on YouTube that can spark interesting conversations and activity. 

• We constructed instruments, a fun project. 

• We learned about the unique properties of our individual voices and instruments. 

We have used music to learn about and discuss events going on in the students’ lives. These exceptional students, their teachers, parents, and I are excited about these experiences at Scott County High School. I know there are great examples of work that music teachers are accomplishing with special needs students around the country.

Brent Merritt, Scott County High School Lexington, KY
Reprinted with permission of ACDA

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