The Importance of Music Therapy with At-Risk Youth

By Whitney Perry, MusicWorx Intern

With unemployment and mass evictions at an all-time high, the population of unhoused individuals has risen 24% in California alone since 2018. The emergence of the Coronavirus pandemic contributed greatly to the homeless epidemic; countries across the globe are bussing unhoused individuals out of their cities and passing laws making it illegal to be homeless. We have stigmatized their circumstance to a point where, more often than not, we do not view them as people at all. Children who are homeless are the most affected victims of a system that refuses to help them, dealing with life stressors most people could never imagine.

As humans, mimicking behaviors in our environment is second nature. Repeated behaviors suggest expectation. A child, who is particularly impressionable, will internalize that these behaviors are what is expected of them. Not only that, children also internalize the visible results of these habits. When adults around them act in anger and violence, children blame themselves. If we continue to promote a society that ostracizes the unhoused, what can we expect for their future?

During my undergraduate fieldwork, I had the opportunity to work with children in grades 4-6 experiencing homelessness. On my first day at the site, my supervisor advised me that connecting with these students may take longer than other populations because they were wary of us. She explained that they had grown up with the expectation that the adults in their lives would walk out, and I was determined to do what I could to make sure they knew they could count on us.

My supervisor was right. It took a couple of weeks for the group to warm up to us. Particularly during the observation stage, students would whisper behind our backs and choose to giggle, glare, or run away when we made eye contact with them. It was not until we were able to connect with them through play during recess or interact with them during music groups that we began to establish a secure rapport. For a deeper look at research that supports connecting with children through play and more anecdotal writing regarding this population, check out this blog.

While most of our classmates had assessment forms similar to one another, ours looked a little bit different. Instead of being grouped into physical, cognitive, psychosocial, behavioral and motor domains, our assessment was grouped into executive function, self-concept and social skills. Additionally, a majority of the assessment for these kids focused on potential life stressors and ways in which they might manifest in the students’ behaviors. Going in, I expected some of these life stressors: experiencing homelessness and/or extreme poverty, frequent moves, and living in cramped conditions in a high-crime area. Others were a surprise. I had no idea that most of these children had witnessed violence, or been a victim of a crime. I did not expect these 9 – 12-year-olds to be dealing with adults’ mental health issues and experiencing the death of somebody close to them. And yet, when I completed my assessment form, I found that at least 50% of these students were experiencing all of these life stressors. Homeless children are almost always continuously surrounded by high rates of violence, mental health issues, and substance abuse. These things directly, regularly affect them.

I remember feeling particularly frustrated after completing these assessment forms and realizing the extremity of these kids’ situations. They did not deserve this. Why couldn’t I fix this? Nothing I could bring to the table would ever be enough to help them. During my time with this population, I had to realize that while music therapists may not be able to solve the housing crisis, what we can do is focus our full attention on spending time with these kids and meeting their needs moment by moment. I came to understand the power in providing opportunities for healing through music: helping clients to find, and use, their voices.

When forming goals for this group, we discussed in detail the different ways life stressors could manifest in these students’ behaviors. Within this group of ten 4th – 6th graders, around 30% of students experienced difficulties with speech, impulse control, depressive behaviors, and found it difficult to make friends. 100% of students experienced attention difficulties, had a history of truancy (lots of absences), and were falling behind academically. Classroom teachers and staff echoed a desire to address academic and social goals, and to promote improved executive function and self-concept.

Looking into current research studies with at-risk youth showed that music therapy has been found to be a successful tool in addressing the following goals:

  • socialization,
  • self-expression,
  • self-esteem, and
  • mind-body connection.

Combining our research and assessment, we determined that creating a structure and routine for our sessions might be most beneficial for these students. This way, students knew when and what to expect from us, and had an idea of what was expected of them. We began with an intervention that focused on attention and effortful control: “effortful control is defined as a child’s ability to utilize attentional resources and to inhibit behavioral responses in order to regulate emotions and related behaviors” (Rothbart, Ahadi & Hershey, 1994). These interventions were designed to promote group cohesion and teamwork, while serving as a grounding exercise to start the session and providing gentle reminders of what “ultimate focus” (a term operationally defined at the beginning of the year with the students) looks like.

After 10-15 minutes, we would transition into a more in-depth intervention focused on promoting self-concept and improving academic skills. Many of our students came in with a negative self-image or low self-esteem because of their circumstances and previous relationships. By incorporating reading and writing using song lyrics, MadLibs or writing prompts we were able to encourage thoughts and conversations surrounding positive self-talk and growth mindset. The length of the intervention also promoted sustained attention to a single task. It was amazing to see how much incorporating music and activities that the kids enjoyed could transform the learning curve and environment. You can view a more specific session plan here.

Getting to know these kids instilled a passion for this population in me. I was lucky enough to witness firsthand the benefits of meeting these kids where they are, and to experience how music therapy can lead to feelings of empowerment and autonomy, while serving as a creative outlet for emotional expression and a springboard for group cohesion.

Iliya, Y., A. (2011). Singing for healing and hope: Music therapy methods that use the voice with  individuals who are homeless and mentally ill. Music Therapy Perspectives, 29(1), 14-22.

Pasiali, V., & Clark, C. (2018). Evaluation of a music therapy social skills development program for youth with limited resources. Journal of Music Therapy, 55(3), 280-308. doi:10.1093/jmt/thy007

Rothbart, M., Ahadi, S., & Hershey, K. (1994). Temperament and Social Behavior in Childhood.  Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, (1), 21-39.