Transitioning from primary to secondary school is a rite of passage, but this life event can spark uncertainty and anxiety amongst students as they disconnect from old support networks and familiar settings, and head into the unknown.
In the last two years, challenges around school transition have been further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only have many thousands of children changed school without the typical introductions and settling-in periods that would normally be allowed, enabling familiarisation and easing fears, but children have also experienced periods of unprecedented social isolation as a result of lockdowns, with families doing their best to meet the demands of home-schooling, juggled with work and other commitments. The long-term impact of the pandemic on student wellbeing is yet to be known, however requests for help from CAMHS are at all time high.
MMS works with young people in SEN schools with severe and complex additional needs which include anxiety and mental illness. Managing anxiety and heightened behaviours helps students to regulate; it is virtually impossible to learn in a state of distress. Managing anxiety also benefits students, their peers and support staff as it promotes calm and reduces unsafe behaviours. Change is one of the biggest instigators of anxiety. Transitioning schools is a life event we can expect and often creates challenges for many. A young person attending a SEN school may find these challenges more significant and difficult to navigate as they attempt to cope with:
Changes of routine: old, consistent patterns will give way to a new timetable
Changes of support: the staff that may have worked 1-2-1 with a young person for several years, perhaps provided personal care, is no longer with them and a new, unfamiliar person has taken their place
Changes in social circles: friends may have moved to different schools and young people will need to navigate making new social connections
For a young person with anxiety, social, mental health, behavioural and learning needs transition can be an extremely challenging time; and the isolation of lockdowns has meant relearning routines and reconnecting with social and support circles.
Through reflecting on these challenges and the needs of the young people we work with, we began to consider the following questions:
Can music help young people with additional needs navigate the difficulties of transition?
Can music help mitigate against negative affects to wellbeing, and enable students to thrive through group work that promotes connection and interactivity, and enables autonomy, resilience and independence?
Through ‘Smooth Transitions’ we are exploring these questions, and piloting research that could have a profound impact on the efficacy of music in SEN/D settings.
We will be updating this page with news from our project. Please find our latest achievements below:
1. Social Development
Participants have built an awareness of each other through turn-taking and listening to each other’s music. All the students participating have severe or complex needs and even participants with profound and multiple needs have displayed new social skills as they recognise and connect with their peers through eye contact, particularly when the peer was making music. Some participants even began to assist and praise each other (e.g. clapping, congratulating).
We had two new students join and their connection to their groups has changed over the course of the project. At first the new students would be the last to be chosen in turn taking and less acknowledged by peers, however by the end of the project they were celebrated like anyone else as they had been assimilated into the group through joint music-making.
2. Developing support
The first part of the project took place online due to COVID restrictions. Home learning enabled parents and carers to develop new methods for supporting their child, as modelled by our music leader and support staff (e.g. using Makaton, being aware of individual skills the participants had presented). As we transitioned back into school, our music leader was increasingly reliant on the assistance of support staff as they had to social distance whilst teaching. This meant staff, new to working with students were able to develop new support skills and connect with students in new ways.
3. Personal development
Some participants developed new instrumental skills: e.g. five learnt to play the piano with two hands using supportive resources. Others were motivated by music to engage in learning.
Music became a motivator for Student A who moved to the school mid-project. Student A (whose needs included Autism, learning and communication difficulties) displayed anxiety as a result of the transition; their anxiety was demonstrated through wandering, throwing objects and struggling to engage in learning. During the first lesson, for safety reasons the student was in the room for the lesson but sat away from the group. When they heard the drums, they were drawn to the instrument, came over to the group and took a turn; this was one of their first engagements with learning since joining the school. Following on from the session, support staff would use music as well as other behaviour management strategies to calm or engage the student throughout the school day. By the end of the project Student A (more settled but still prone to disengaging from activities throughout the school day) would stay for the entire music session and sit with his peers, playing with the group and solo, and expressing preferences for music making e.g. choosing instruments, who should solo next, or how the music might be played (i.e. dynamics, tempo and pitch changes).
Student B has profound & multiple needs that impacts their learning, movement & communication. If stressed / not wanting to participate they express this by shutting their eyes. Student B coped well with online learning and was able to demonstrate to their parent and sibling how they can drum independently; at one point they had had enough of work and communicated this by pushing the drum onto the floor! They have a visual impairment but even online they still managed to connect with their peers. In one session they noticed their peer (who was known to be very vocal) enter the session and they tracked their voice to find them on the screen, looked at them, smiled, and laughed at their presence.
As the project moved to in-person learning, Student B would smile and vocalise loudly, as they were pleased to experience live music. We offered them a microphone to amplify their voice and they started to try to grasp it themselves as they didn’t want it to end, and they wanted to demonstrate that they could hold it independently. The school had set targets for Student B to reach and hold objects for short periods and the microphone motivated them to hold the object for 5 minutes. In the later weeks of the project, they would continue to look at their peers in class particularly during the hello song as we sang hello to others. Since introducing the microphone, we had asked Student B each lesson if they wanted the microphone and modelled signing ‘yes’. By week 17, they signed ‘microphone’ (this hadn’t been modelled) and when the leader checked their request they signed ‘yes’.
Student B bonded with peers, developed their communication, achieved new personal goals and exhibited independence all through group music making because they were motivated, having fun with others and not anxious.
To discover more about the impact of this project you can read our report here:
We would like to thank our school partner, The Michael Tippett School, for their support of our research project and our funders who without their contribution this work would not have been possible: The Radcliffe Trust and Postcode Community Trust, a grant-giving charity funded entirely by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
You can learn about these amazing organisations here: