RTRL.23: Facilitating Music Learning for Students with Special Needs (Gerrity, Hourigan, & Horton, 2013)


Gerrity, K. W., Hourigan, R. M., & Horton, P. W. (2013). Conditions that facilitate music learning among students with special needs: A mixed-methods inquiry. Journal of Research in Music Education, 61(2), 144-159.

What did the researchers want to know?

What conditions facilitate the learning of music among students with special needs?

What did the researchers do?

Gerrity, Hourigan, and Horton conducted a mixed-methods study of 16 children (ages 7-14 years) with special needs. Of the 16 students, 11 had autism, two had Down syndrome, two had cognitive delays, and one had cerebral palsy. The students participated in an integrated arts experience, which met for 10 Saturday afternoons and included instruction in music, theatre, and dance. For the quantitative part of the study, the researchers conducted a 20-item assessment of each student’s individual skills and knowledge of pitch and rhythm at both the beginning and end of the 10-week class. For the qualitative part of the study, the students, their parents, and six preservice educators (who served as mentors in the program) were interviewed to identify conditions that facilitated the students’ learning.

What did the researchers find?

According to the quantitative analysis, “the musical ability of the students was poor at the start of the experimental period” (p. 152), but there was a statistically significant improvement between the pretest and posttest. Overall, students demonstrated significant increases in rhythm, pitch, and tonal memory at the end of the 10-week period.

Qualitative analysis revealed that both the students and their parents perceived tangible musical accomplishments as a result of participating in the class. The student mentors identified three main strategies that led to increased engagement and learning: 

  1. Repetition. “Repetition not only helped the students acquire specific skills and knowledge, but it also allowed the students to better understand the sequence of instruction” (pp. 153-154).
  2. Student Choice.  “Many of the students had limited experience with instruments and other music equipment” (p. 154), so having the opportunity to explore at their own pace and choose their own instruments was important.
  3. Increased Response Time. Students were more likely to show their understanding of a concept or skill when given a long opportunity to respond.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Students with special needs are capable of building musical knowledge and skills and deserve the opportunity to do so! To better facilitate music learning for students with special needs, teachers can incorporate the strategies identified in Gerrity, Hourigan, and Horton’s study:

  • Provide repeated opportunities for students to experience, experiment with, and practice musical skills.
  • Allow students to explore, move at their own pace, and choose instruments and other materials that appeal to them.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence! Providing more “wait time” for students to respond gives them more freedom and opportunity to do so. One of the mentors in the study explained the benefits of this increased response time: “We modeled something and there would be kind of like 10 seconds of just cold silence. Then, suddenly, it would just come out. You never really knew when it was going to come out” (p. 154).

Gerrity, Hourigan, and Horton also identified environmental conditions that facilitated student success: having clear directions and expectations, using a behavior plan, and providing a positive, encouraging environment. NAfME members can read the full article by logging in here.

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