How the Ukulele Can Help Engage Developmentally Disabled Kids

developmentally disabled kidsOur society is becoming preoccupied with tests and achievements to ‘rate’ individuals in school. We are more interested in what our kids get on a test than if they really learned anything. Consequently, school can very well end up being a competition rather than a source of knowledge. Kids may feel the pressure of having to be the best.

Developmentally disabled kids can particularly feel  this pressure. Music is a proven way to help developmentally disabled children function better in a school environment. It opens the child to new concepts and experiences unlike other subjects such as math and science.

Music can help with:

  • attention
  • social interaction
  • communication
  • self-discovery
  • improvement of speech and motor functions
  • recognition and
  • stress relief and enjoyment

So how do you design a music program to cater to developmentally disabled kids so that they find something that they can relate to? Jenny shares her experience with teaching developmentally disabled students. Keep reading to find out how she built a program to cater specifically to their needs. Again, we recommend ukulele as the instrument of choice. You can read more about why here.

Jenny’s Experience Teaching Ukulele to Developmentally Disabled Kids

When I was teaching ukulele some years back in an elementary school, I had several developmentally disabled students in my music classes. These students had one class per week with their age group peers, and one class per week with their special needs peers. None of these special needs children were at grade level for reading, writing or math skills, but socially and musically they were able to fit in with the other students through learning to play and sing with the ukulele.

Ukulele, the perfect instrument for the special needs student

I found that these children were more frustrated with the recorder, an instrument where you blow and cover holes with your fingers, than with the ukulele. In addition, the fine muscle coordination required by the recorder was quite frustrating.  These special children are sensitive to sound. Often the sounds they produced were high screeches, and they would often shut down in response.
On the other hand, the ukulele was soothing. All of the children could strum down strokes on the open strings with a steady beat. With a simple re-tuning of the A string down to the note G, the open strings of the ukulele create a C chord. Students can strum the open strings without having to put any left hand  fingers down. An F chord and a G chord can be created by barring one finger at the 5th and 7th frets respectively. The same effect can be created by sliding a plastic slide to stop the strings at that fret. That way students with limited finger strength and muscle tone can be successful strumming and singing.

One of my colleagues told me about a special needs boy in her class who has physical issues with his hands where he could not control them to strum a steady beat. She designed a foot pedal that strummed the ukulele strings on beat for this boy, so that he could participate with his friends in the music class

Ukulele Special Needs Pedagogy

Each week, during the special education music class, I would pre-teach the material we were going to learn in the regular music class. The special needs children were able to sing and strum with the beat and to hold simple chord shapes with their left hands. If the child had fine motor issues in their hands, the child could strum the open strings of the ukulele. The open strings of the ukulele create a beautiful consonant chord without a left hand chord, so simply strumming the strings allows the children to participate with age-group peers.

One of the beautiful things about working with these children was that most of them loved music. With a few modifications, these children were able to perform as well or better as some of their peers, probably one of the few places where this could happen during their school day. Because the songs were simple and international, these children could relate to them and feel proud of what they could add to the class. One child even gave me the words of Frere Jacques in Assyrian.

Ukulele for AllUkulele For All is the ultimate guide to mastering this popular, versatile and accessible instrument.

The unique UFA pedagogy begins with one chord songs to give all students instant success as they learn solo and ensemble skills.

Wrap Up

Music is a perfect way for special needs children to grow in class. It is not based on tests and abstract ideas but on activity that actually relaxes the mind and gives enjoyment. Through it, developmentally disabled kids are able to discover new and exciting experiences. They are able to develop social and communication skills through music. Other benefits include improvement of motor and speech function as well as a sense of recognition.

The ukulele is a tested instrument to be used for any classroom, special needs or otherwise. The kids can easily get proficient at it, achieving something that they can be proud of. This boosts their confidence to learn even more. Structuring the program for the special needs kids is an important piece of the puzzle. Jenny pre-taught the developmentally disabled kids the material they were to learn with their peers. Ukulele for All is a perfect guide to developing a suitable pedagogy for teaching ukulele in the classroom setting. Moreover, pedagogy may be adapted to cater to kids with developmental disabilities.

We hope this post helps teachers and parents to expose developmentally disabled kids to the wonderful benefits of music through the ukulele.

Happy Strumming.

3 replies
  1. Maureen L Russill
    Maureen L Russill says:

    Thank you for your article. As a long time special education teacher and advocate for those having disabilities, I appreciate seeing an increase in mainstream blogs and essays which bring these members of our population into focus. One of my personal causes is to encourage "person first" nomenclature. Although it has been advocated for some time, it is an important tool to help more people understand and accept each other. It simply consists of introducing the individual as a respected person who happens to have a disability rather than as the disability itself. For example, John is not a "diabetic" he is a person who has diabetes. Fran is not a "mentally challenged" woman, but a person who deals with or has intellectual disabilities. By putting the person first, we become aware that they, like us, are complex human beings who have likes, dislikes, talents, opinions and who happen to have a disability. It is a slight change but a revealing one. A person is a person and not a condition. Dr. Seuss gave us the Whos of Whoville as an illustration.
    Again, thank you for using you talent and blog space to encompass all.

    • Jenny Peters
      Jenny Peters says:

      You make a really good point. I will try to remember in the future to speak of a person first and whatever disability or ability they have second. Our common humanity is much more important than perceived differences based on abilities and disabilities. Thank you for commenting.

    • Lala
      Lala says:

      We're glad our blog reached you, Maureen. And we commend your advocacy because that is so true, a disability does not define a person.


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