Though the classroom looks just like any other -- small desks and chairs across the room, colorful posters all around, a blank whiteboard attached to the wall -- it does not sound like any other.
The peaceful strumming of an acoustic guitar and the soothing singing voice of teacher Candice Sirak fills the Ponte Vedra Palm Valley/Rawlings Elementary School classroom. The four students who sit around her begin to quietly sing along.
These students, as well as others within the Ponte Vedra area, are part of a new music therapy program that has been implemented by the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra in Ocean Palms Elementary and Valley Ridge Academy as well.
Designed for children between ages 6 and 11 with special needs, the program seeks to use music as a teaching method that will reach special needs children in a way that a typical classroom wouldn’t -- lectures, textbooks, and homework are no longer the focus.
These students often learn and communicate through physical activities, using their bodies to create and react to music. For students with Down syndrome, autism, developmental delays and other special needs, it is often easier to learn through music.
“It’s fun, first of all,” said Sirak about music therapy. “A lot of times they learn something and they don’t even know they’re learning it, because they’re just singing a song.”
The special needs students attend music therapy classes two to four times a week and the classes last for around half an hour. The classes are not designed to replace the children’s regular academics, but are meant to supplement them.
Studies have been done on the subject of music therapy for decades and it has been shown to be a valid method of helping special needs students. Research conducted by Frontiers in Neuroscience stated that listening to music enhances a child’s verbal capabilities and general reasoning skills; it also helps students develop emotionally, particularly when it comes expressing empathy.
Sirak often begins her classes with a simple “hello” song that helps the children become engaged and social right from the start. From there, everything in the class is designed to keep the children participating, whether through music, movement or a creative activity.
Sirak’s interest in music therapy began in high school, though she has had a passion for music nearly all her life. After high school, she earned her both her bachelor’s and master’s degree in music therapy at FSU and soon began working as a teacher.
Even storytime takes on a new form in Sirak’s class -- as she reads a simple book to the children, they use their own instruments to bring the words to life. The sounds of shaking, clicking and knocking would not be welcomed in a typical class, but Sirak recognizes that this is how these children will learn to listen and communicate.
Making music therapy a part of Ponte Vedra Palm Valley/Rawlings was no simple process, however, even though other schools have paved the way for its development.
The Cultural Center first initiated a music therapy program in 2006 with Cunningham Creek Elementary. The program proved to be successful and convinced the former Cunningham Creek principal, Jessica Richardson, to bring the idea before the Cultural Center that another music therapy program should be started in Ocean Palms Elementary, which is where she is currently principal.
From there, other St. John’s County schools followed Ocean Palms Elementary’s lead; Valley Ridge Academy and now Palm Valley Ponte Vedra/Rawlings have begun music therapy programs that have been helping reach special needs children ever since.
The Cultural Center has managed to raise funds for the music therapy program through June of 2016. Members are now seeking to begin raising enough funds to keep it active for another three years.
Seeing the success of the music therapy programs has led Leigh Rodante, director of programs and exhibitions at the Cultural Center, to push for its support.
“We have a very dedicated board of directors and they’re putting together a strategic plan to come up with the funds,” Rodante said. “We also have a GoFundMe page, and we’ve put together initiatives to get that out into the public -- so hopefully the community will understand how effective it is and contribute to our program.”
Through her experiences as a teacher, Sirak has seen how just important music therapy is for special needs children to communicate with others -- and how it also allows others to communicate with them.
“A lot of kids don’t have the vocal or the verbal capability to tell you what they’re feeling,” Sirak said. “But they can maybe play an instrument in a certain way and you can kind of see what they’re feeling.”
If you are interested in supporting the music therapy program through the Cultural Center, the GoFundMe page can be found at: https://www.gofundme.com/ CCPVBmusictherapy