Music as an Inclusive Teaching Tool

By Lisa Heintz, M.Ed.

“Where words fail, music speaks.”

~Hans Christian Andersen, author


For most of us, music provides a soundtrack for our lives. We can instantly recall the emotions a song evokes--where we were, who we were with, or what we were doing when a particular song played on the radio or turntable, CD or stream. Even if we are not professional singers or musicians, we appreciate the many moods and other worlds that music can lead us to as we listen...sway...bob our heads...or tap our toes to the beat.


We anticipate that children will enjoy music we share with them just as much as we do, and that is usually true. But what about children who may have motor or sensory challenges, or who experience music differently than we’d expect? How do we share those great musical moments with them so that a musical “playlist” becomes important to them as well? In addition to being an emotional and social outlet, and utilizing both sides of the brain, music can provide opportunities for children to succeed and demonstrate their abilities in new ways.


Consider these suggestions to help you leverage music as a teaching tool for all learners:


🎵 Be sure the environment is developmentally appropriate for all learners, with added attention to helping students with special needs participate fully and be successful.

  1. Music materials are organized and convenient

  2. Available space is accessible for each child to move freely, including children with walkers, wheelchairs, special seats

  3. “Bubble” (personal) spaces are clearly marked on the floor

  4. Instruments are modified to enable all children to use them

  5. Picture cue cards depict the music making process (schedule, instruments, singing, etc) and are large enough to provide visual support


🎵 Create a positive, dependableflow” to the schedule when incorporating music into routines so that students become familiar with the pattern and expectations.


  1. Clear procedures for

    1. Distributing and collecting instruments

    2. Use of each type of instrument

    3. Turn taking

    4. Beginning and ending music making (choose a visual “stop” gesture)

  2. Consistent transitions

    1. Song or other cue to indicate the next activity

    2. Established method of getting students’ attention

    3. Gathering routine at the music/group space

  1. Consistent music planning sequence with a balance of active and quiet

    1. e.g., Transition song for gathering > gross motor movement song > seated action song/finger play > slower song > story > transition song to next activity)

🎵 Monitor your pacing - as you move from one song or activity to the next

  1. Select songs with a slightly slower tempo (speed) or sing faster songs at a slower tempo with younger children

  2. Slow songs down or pause as needed to best support your students with cognitive or physical disabilities

  3. Casually pre-teach songs one-on-one for students who need added experience

  4. Vary the length of time a child participates in music experiences as their level of engagement allows: Include the child for just the first segment, then adding the last segment, then gradually more time in between.

🎵 Provide aural, kinesthetic and visual cues as you discuss or introduce the songs/books, and throughout the music time to meet as many varying modalities as possible.

  1. Aural:
    1. playing instruments

    2. singing

    3. listening (others, recordings)

    4. chanting

  2. Kinesthetic: movements to develop

    1. gross motor skills (jumping, spinning, hopping, clapping, etc.)

    2. fine motor skills (tapping, snapping, etc.)

    3. crossing the midline/bi-lateral skills (cross-crawling, making windmills, marching, making ribbon circles with both hands holding the ribbon on either side, etc.)

  3. Visual:

    1. picture cue cards

    2. pictures of scenes depicting a song

    3. illustrated song picture books

    4. color-code instruments (chimes, xylophone, bells, Boomwhackers, glockenspiel) and create sheet music “notes” with colored sticker dots for playing familiar tunes

    5. song charts with key words illustrated

    6. pair key words with motions

🎵 Adapt or modify instruments as needed to support success

  1. Velcro is your friend! It can be used creatively and safely to attach instruments or handles around wrists, ankles, legs or fingers to enable children with fine motor challenges to succeed!

  2. For added texture and grip on handles, add adhesive strips or dots of hook and loop fastener or Wikki Stix wound around handles

  3. Hot glue a Velcro loop to one side of an egg shaker- it can be played with one finger through the adjustable loop.

  4. For children who are sensitive to sound, allow them to wear unplugged headphones to reduce (not cancel) the sound; incorporate more scarf activities

  5. Suspend a triangle from the edge of a table or chair back so it can be played with one hand

🎵 Additional strategies:

  1. Maximize a student’s particular strengths and assets

  2. Incorporate a child’s IEP goals into everyday musical activities

  3. Increase your use of chants and songs with a clear beat - a steady beat helps organize cognitive information

  4. Encourage all appropriate attempts to participate

  5. Redirect inappropriate participation calmly while reminding the child of the expectation using positive language (“You may pat your hands on your own ”)

  6. Provide two reasonable choices (with visual cues): “Do you want to sit on the square or in the circle?” This allows a child to have a choice while still participating in an acceptable way.

  7. Select songs of high interest and participation

  8. Observe, reflect and continue adapting as needed

Planning for each student’s success with music making can seem challenging, but keeping their specific needs, interests and learning goals in mind will ensure that you prepare a “concert” of musical excitement and participation for all. Creating music together will leave you and your students with a feeling of community, accomplishment and joy!


For more information, see these sources:

Coast Music Therapy website - free resources for teachers and parents

Sarrazin, Natalie. 2016. Music and the Child. “Music and Inclusion.”

Wagner-Yeung, Brian. Teaching Lessons to Children with Special Needs. National Association for Music Education (NAfME), 5/28/18.


How are you using music in your inclusive classroom?


Lisa Heintz, M.Ed., is an educator with over 25 years of experience supporting learners from toddlers to adults, and owner of Little Songbird: Songs for Learning, a site that provides quality children’s music and book recommendations for PreK-grade 3 educators. She stays “green and growing” by volunteering in community and school projects that focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as with the Children’s Music Network. She is fascinated by birds of all sorts, loves cats, and is the proud mom of a son who is a shining example of what intentional teaching and parenting can do for children with disabilities. Connect with Lisa at