Inclusive singing for children with SEND

Sponsored: Sing Up’s CEO Michelle James explains how to engage all children in singing

SEND, or special educational needs and disabilities, is a catch-all term covering a very wide range of needs. More social contexts are using alternative language to avoid people becoming identified solely by labels and are advocating for the social model of disability – the concept that people are disabled by barriers in society that restrict their life choices.

Every child is so unique in the ways in which they engage and respond that no categorisation can completely and adequately inform your approach. You will find the best ways to connect with individuals simply through getting to know them.

Children with social, emotional and behavioural needs may be facing extremely challenging circumstances in their lives, and singing can be a chance for them to take some time out from their daily reality. It can be a good release and chance to channel some anger or emotion in a different way. It may give them an opportunity to express themselves, which could be difficult for them to do in other contexts.

Music can offer the chance to develop confidence and self-belief, as children may be able to engage with music even if they struggle in other areas of education and general life. They can also explore their own self-expression, identity and creativity, and feel a sense of control that they may not experience in other areas of their lives. Group music-making and singing can help to build social, interaction and communication skills. Children who have previously struggled to work with other people often begin to communicate and find ways to work together.

Group warm-ups can be a great way in. Often, doing these without any verbal instruction from the music leader but simply relying on copying and gesture can be really effective in creating a calm and focused atmosphere from the start. Rhythm games and pair work can be a good way to move these towards the next stages of music-making.

It may give them an opportunity to express themselves, which could be difficult for them to do in other contexts

Many vocal warm-ups focus on sound effects and exploring the voice, allowing children to have fun and explore without worrying about being ‘right’. It can be helpful to try using simple graphic scores, so that children can come up with symbols to represent different ways to use their voices and then create scores for the class to try out.

You could also incorporate instruments for those children who are not ready to use their voices. You can then move onto using words and speaking in rhythm, playing with the different ways you can use your voice, such as expressing different emotions or using different accents. This can also be approached in a playful way, allowing children to gradually get rid of inhibitions and find fun and humour in using their voices.

Turn-taking songs give opportunities for individual children to have small solos, often with responses from the rest of the group. Some children may want to take time to build up their confidence to get to this point.

Call and response songs play a similar role. They can be simple and fun, and the class will learn to sing responses to the call of a leader. There can also be a movement element, which could be set, or the leader could create the movement for everyone else to copy. Children can then take on the role of the leader as they become more confident and it is another chance to nurture a safe environment where everyone’s contributions are celebrated. A gentle way in for older children would be to use simple songs that have potential to build up into something more complex. For example, canons, rounds and songs with layers of harmony.

Learning songs in different languages can also provide an accessible starting point, as it can remove any barriers or associations that children may have with their use of English and language within an educational environment. It can create a chance to explore new sounds and ways to use the voice and can allow everyone to feel like they are all starting from the same point of learning, as it is likely that no-one has prior knowledge of the vocabulary.

Top tips

  1. Find out as much as possible about the children you are working with, including any specific behaviour triggers, and adapt the way you work.
  2. Find out what interests them and use this to choose appropriate songs and activities.
  3. Consider the set-up of the room. Some children may struggle to be in a group and may need to know that they can easily leave the room or go to a safer space if they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
  4. Keep sessions active with lots of movement, as children may find it hard to sit still.
  5. Take as many opportunities as possible to incorporate children’s ideas and to celebrate their contributions, e.g. ideas for songs, how to sing or improve things.

Fun, free and accessible for all, singing is the secret to transforming and improving every aspect of school life. Based on the research we have done over the past 10 years, we have written a practical guide on how to begin your journey of becoming a Singing School. Read more about Singing Schools here and get your copy of The Singing School Handbook here.

Through our award-winning digital solution, Sing Up provides you with the complete singing experience. Membership includes access to almost 1,000 songs, specially arranged to promote good vocal health in young voices. Our wide range of resources, training and songs are designed to help you create a complete foundation for singing across the school, for musical learning, choirs and more, for early years to age 18 and beyond.

Make this commitment to music for your students throughout the year by becoming Sing Up members today and harness the power of singing every day – click here to find out more.

For more help and advice, see or The Singing School Handbook, available from Amazon.

Tweet @SingUpTweets and @michellejjames1 to continue the conversation.

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