Alyssa Monas sits before a half-dozen toddlers, clutching the $150 acoustic guitar her mother bought for her ages ago.
“Good morning, friends,” she says.
Some bob their heads. A few have a case of the wiggles, and flail with their hands. “I see Ricky swaying,” Monas says.
She points out when each child joins. She looks each child in the eye and sings their names. “Hello to Carlos.” “Hello to Dylan.”
This 25-minute session is not music class. It’s therapy for the children at Childhaven, whigch provides free early intervention, counseling and early learning services to families experiencing trauma. Music — universal, structured and fun — can be the therapy that resonates with children struggling to connect.
The organization often treats children who have developmental delays and whose families are experiencing a crisis or adverse effects from exposure to difficulties like abuse, neglect, addiction, homelessness, or mental illness. “These are parents that deeply care for their children, but because they lack resources, they can’t meet the needs of their family,” said Jon Lanthier, director of communications. “We’re helping to reduce the impact of these crisis situations they’ve been in.”
Music therapy provides another way for clinicians to connect with kids, meet them on their level and help them develop. “I’m not teaching them music. I’m teaching them skills through music,” said Monas. “For kids who have chaos and unpredictability in their lives, music has structure, music has predictability.”
Monas’ work is rooted in science and evidence from research. “Children respond to routine. They can feel safety in routine and structure,” said Barbara Else, research and policy adviser to the American Music Therapy Association.
Before the song began, Monas greeted the group with bright, exaggerated facial expressions. “We make big eyes and we speak exaggerated so they’re understanding what’s going on and paying attention to you,” said Petra Kern, a music therapy consultant and adjuct associate professor at the University of Louisville.
After the greeting, Monas asked the children to sway. As young parents know well, rocking side-to-side can soothe children. It stimulates body awareness, or proprioception, which can help kids feel connected and oriented, Else said. The swaying also encourages entrainment, synchronicity with others through rhythm, which can help the children connect within themselves and with others.
By calling out each child’s name during the ‘Hello’ song, Monas created a “loving environment where we can develop healthy praise and a secure relationship,” Kern said.
Monas also taught kids how to greet and interact. “A little song like that, 3 to 5 minutes, teaches children what’s appropriate in society and from a cultural perspective,” Kern said.
During the session, Monas raised the group’s intensity using rhythm and tempo, and later calmed the beat. “We’re working on emotional and arousal regulation,” Monas said before leading the kids in pretending to bundle up for cold weather.
When she passed out the scarves one by one, Monas emphasized impulse control and waiting for peers. After, she demonstrated how to blow on the snowflake scarves, an exercise that shows kids how to control their breathing, which can help them relax.
During the session, Monas pulled out kid-favorite “stretchy band,” a ring of elastic material that looks like a giant hair scrunchy. She uses the multicolor band in several ways: To have everyone grasp the band and feel part of the group, to teach colors and also to explain appropriate ways to express emotion.
For kids struggling for developmental footing and dealing with trauma, music can be the tool that draws them out, helps them engage and spurs their advancement. Kern said, “Play is the work of the child. That’s how they learn.”