October is Down Syndrome Month. Over the past 40 years (yikes!), I have had the pleasure of working with many children with Down Syndrome. I have had the honor of watching them grow into young, delightful adults. I have watched them dance, smile, talk, read, sing, go to college, and care for others. That is total joy for me! Throughout those years, I have found that using music for kids with Down Syndrome is of enormous value.
Many years ago, I lead Music and Movement Magic classes to children with special needs and their families. I remember one class in particular where there were 2 children who showed an incredible love for music. They knew the songs as well as anyone there – including all of the older siblings and parents. They moved to the music, did the signs and gestures, followed the directions, and sang. Those 2 children both have Down Syndrome. Witnessing their joy continued to reinforce my belief that music is an incredible gift especially for kids with Down Syndrome. Using music for kids with Down Syndrome helps them learn.
In thinking about that night and many other moments with former students, there are several key points to remember when helping your child with Down Syndrome.
Repetition and consistency is important.
Do you get bored of singing the same old song over and over? I understand, but kids don’t seem to care at all. Children with Down Syndrome especially benefit from the repetition.
Parents, start using music for kids with Down Syndrome when they are very young.
The parents in the Music and Movement Class began exposing their children to listening, dancing, and singing during infancy. They made up their own silly songs to help their children learn family member names, animal names, and common objects – just to name a few examples.
These kids were the stars that night because their parents started at birth, singing not only for the LOVE of music, but also for the LEARNING of it.
Use music to teach skills.
Certainly music is for enjoyment, but don’t forget about the power of a song. Research has shown the benefits of using music to improve many developmental skills. Children have been able to learn and retain vocabulary, imitate signs and gestures, follow verbal directions, practice social skills, and practice saying speech sounds, words, and phrases. Kids with Down Syndrome can benefit from music just like other children can. Music is especially effective if presented in a simple, repetitive way and with songs that invite participation.
Our Talk It Rock It songs pertain to a child’s daily activities and common vocabulary. Whether your child needs to learn to say Hi, Bye, Owie, Help, No, Bath, or Baby, we have probably created a song for it. When you are actually in the middle of one of those daily routines, begin singing that song, so your child gets the connection between the words in the song and the actual activity. When possible, use props to act out the songs and sing them with and without the music. Begin to speak the lyrics of the songs during routines of the day so that the words begin to make sense both not only with the song, but while speaking as well.
Make up your own songs to fit the needs of your child.
Depending on what words you would like your child to understand, say verbally, or sign, make up tunes throughout your day. I call it the “Spontaneous Song All Day Long.” Children don’t care HOW you sing. They just care THAT you sing. The rhythm and tune will keep your child more attentive. Whether it is bath time, riding in the car, going to the store, or brushing your teeth, you can turn any words into a song. If you have already caught yourself being a composer, I applaud you and encourage you to continue your “Mozartism”. (:>) In most of our song sets, we have included instrumental tracks to create your own songs specific to your child’s needs.
Combine songs with gestures and signs.
Children with Down Syndrome typically show a delay in learning to talk. To decrease frustration for them, begin teaching signs and gestures. This will enhance your child’s ability to communicate. Gestures and signs will not decrease your child’s desire to use speech. If a child can talk, he will. Let’s teach a child the power of communication before a child can say words.
Encourage large motor movement.
Use any favorite song to encourage imitation of motor movements. Use shakers scarves, ribbons, and even beach towels, moving them in various ways. The interaction that is created with these props can be wonderful. We have several songs such as Fish, Birds, and Bunnies, Shake and Wave from our Drills for Sounds Set 3, and many songs from Animals Movin’ and Groovin’ Set 5 to encourage gross motor movements. A physical therapist always told me, “What you don’t have in your hips, you can’t have in your lips.” Gross motor movement develops before more fine motor movements. Listen to song samples here of all of our songs. In addition, we have movie versions of our song sets called, Animation Station. You can view samples of those here.
Combine songs with visuals.
To help a child understand words to songs, think about using toys or common objects to act out the songs. Some of our songs such as the Puppy Song or Baby Blowing Bubbles from Imitation Exploration Set 1 are excellent for acting out. One of my favorite props for verbal imitation practice is our Animal Face Poster set. Please go here to see a video using these animal faces. They are great for some many purposes.
Also, use pictures to illustrate songs. In addition to enhancing a child’s receptive and expressive vocabulary, songs with printable visuals will prepare children for reading. Our songs all come with printable visuals. Check out some of these here.
Use music to practice verbal imitation and speech
Children with Down Syndrome need practice verbally imitating. Sing whatever your child is able to say. If he/she is able to produce vowel-like sounds, start by humming or singing vowels to your favorite songs. My motto is, Sing a Simple Song that Kids can Simply Sing. Our Talk It Rock It songs have many levels of verbal imitation ranging from noises (such as yawning and coughing) to animal sounds, consonant-vowel structures, single words, and phrases. For children just beginning to verbalize, our Imitation Exploration Set 1 is a good one to use first. Drills for Sounds Set 3 is also excellent for specific speech sound practice in words and simple phrases. Rock and Roll with a Language Goal Set 2 is for children who are speaking in words and phrases and need higher level verbal practice.
As you explore your child’s learning style and the techniques that facilitate learning, always keep in mind that music stimulates the entire brain and can be an excellent tool for all children including those with Down Syndrome. Enjoy and remember, “You’ll never go wrong when you teach with a song.”
Rachel Arntson, M.S., CCC