Photo by Laura King

Mike Reinstein

Singer, songwriter, guitarist


In this section:

Little Victories - Making Music with Special Needs Children

By Mike Reinstein


I was the music teacher for six and a half years at Oaktree, an all-age school for children with moderate learning difficulties in North London.

This article attempts to describe something of the experience of making music with special needs children in their early years, the value of the work and some ideas to try in lessons. I begin by outlining my approach to classroom singing followed by some thoughts and ideas for exploring other elements in music.

Children in special needs settings have a wide variety of disabilities. The ideas presented here are general concepts and strategies that may be applied to many special needs groups.


When I began my work at Oaktree it soon became clear that the guiding principles of the school - to raise self-esteem, to create positive self-image and relationships, to encourage the safe expression of feelings and to value differences - would also underpin my music lessons.

I decided that I would make singing the central activity as a way of getting to know the students, to establish warm and working relationships and as a means of assessment. Of course, as time went on other elements were introduced to the sessions: exploring instruments, listening to sounds and creating compositions but singing remained at the core of the work.

We’re singing a song about finding a grizzly bear in the fridge - Ben makes a monster’s face at the right moment. In another song, where the class say hello to each other, Albert has learned to “sign” his name and is now able to do this with increasing confidence. Peter, very rarely for him, vocalises in a song about a ship. In a song about rabbits, everyone in the class picks up the musical cue and starts to jump around the room; shy Althea is the Chief Rabbit and tells the other “rabbits” to “Get back to your burrows!”. They all sit down. Everyday, Ellen quietens to a call and response song, Sanibonani - it stops her crying.

Why sing with Special Needs Children?

Singing with children who have special learning needs is full of such moments - little victories won through the power of music - and is an activity that carries enormous benefits. Apart from learning the basic elements - pitch, duration, volume etc, there are also opportunities to develop cognitive processes such as turn-taking, eye-contact, co-operation, listening and language skills, memory and socialization. Singing sessions often involve movement so that there is always the chance to improve co-ordination and motor skills. Then there is the subject matter of the songs themselves; always useful for supporting areas of study in the curriculum. Finally there is singing itself: a wonderfully creative act in which the body is used to make joyful sounds and to communicate meaning.

Appropriate songs

When I first arrived at Oaktree I found that there weren’t enough appropriate songs available, particularly for the adolescent end of the school. You might not want to sing “Wheels on the Bus” when you’re 19! For the younger pupils there was an already established repetoire but I felt that there was a need to compose songs with a more contemporary approach that connected to the topics and ethos of the school. My wife and I began to write together, using our knowledge of pop, folk and blues music to inform our compositions. It was an exhilarating but rigorous experience to “road test” the songs with the children and they let us know directly which songs they preferred! Eventually we collected twenty of the songs, organised them into the subject areas that one might find in a typical primary curriculum and created The Tommy Tomato Songbook.

Ideas for classroom singing

Exploring other musical elements

If singing represents the earliest form of communication - between carer and baby - then exploring musical activities can be seen as part of the developmental process. Just as singing has attendant benefits, this work too can also address important learning areas for the special needs child: gross and fine motor skills, body and spatial awareness and learning how to be still and engage. It’s also an opportunity to extend creativity, to find meaningful ways of connecting to others both emotionally and expressively and to discover what the pioneering music therapists Nordoff and Robbins describe as the “music child” within.

Ideas for exploring musical elements

Grandma, grandma sick in bed
She sent for the doctor and the doctor said,
“Grandma, grandma you ain’t sick
All you need is a walking stick”.
Hands up shake, shake, shakety shake
Hands down shake, shakety shake
To the front, uh-huh
To the back, uh-huh
To the s-s-side
To the s-s-side
She never went to college and she never went to school
But I bet you a dollar she could wiggle like a fool!

Making music with children who have special needs is a rewarding experience for both teacher and pupil. It’s a joyful way of addressing basic skills, learning about the world and increasing self confidence.

As The Beatles once wrote, “All together now...”

With thanks to Jackie Dillon from Oaktree School for her suggestions.

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