DANIEL, three, loves hugging the big yellow puppet. Susie, four, jumps up and down trying to pop the bubbles being blown throughout the room.
Conor, three, shakes the maracas and enthusiastically does actions to ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ and Katie, four, kicks her legs up in the air and laughs along to the song. It’s the monthly Jo Jingles music, singing and movement group for Down Syndrome Cork and parents and students alike are enjoying every minute of it.
“They’ve adapted the main Jo Jingles sessions for our kids and Katie enjoys it so much. It’s been great for her speech and language development and her babbling is coming along really well,” says Jackie Connolly, who began bringing her daughter to Jo Jingles music group when she was six months old.
“The first day she went, she didn’t do anything. But now she’s less shy and well able to socialise. The music group has given her confidence around other children.”
Established in Cork in 2008, Jo Jingles is one of many music groups around Ireland which caters for typically-developing babies and toddlers. However, many children with special educational needs (SEN) also attend such groups.
“I’ve had a lot of children with Down Syndrome who came to my regular class, and I’ve also had a lot of kids with autism and they get on fantastically. Music is so important for babies and toddlers in so many ways. It’s the same benefit for children with special needs as it is for the other children. The other children don’t even notice and they all just carry on together,” says owner of the Jo Jingles franchise in Cork, Niamh Dunlea.
Jo Jingles music group proved so popular with parents of children with SEN that Dunlea was asked to establish a separate class for Down Syndrome Ireland.
Classes involve a mixture of singing, dancing, action and relaxation songs, with lots of props, including multi-coloured parachutes, scarves and musical instruments — all stage-managed by a yellow puppet called Jo Jingles.
“I love teaching the class for Down Syndrome Ireland, and the children absolutely adore it. You don’t lose their attention for the entire 45-minutes. They will focus and sit there and follow your instructions. They’ve all become very attached to Jo Jingles, and it takes about 20 minutes for him to greet them all at the start of the class because they’d all be hugging and kissing him,” she says.
“The kids absolutely adore Jo Jingles. When I meet the kids outside the class they haven’t a clue who I am because all they look at is Jo sitting on my lap in the class,” says Dunlea.
“Their language development and listening skills are hugely improved — I’ve had grandparents coming to the class and they can’t believe the language development of their grandchildren and they put it down to Jo Jingles.
“Their physical development is catered for because there’s lots of physical activity in the class. The benefits of playing instruments for babies are unbelievable, especially for their motor skills and their hand-eye co-ordination. It’s fantastic for their self-esteem and confidence too, when they come up to the box and choose an instrument, and they all get a little clap,” says Dunlea.
“Their social skills are developed too. One of the main things that parents say to me when they ring me is that they’re at home with one child and they don’t manage to get out much and they want to come to the class to get their children to socialise and interact with other kids.”
Tom Buckley brings his daughter, Susie, four, to the special music group each month.
“It’s great for Susie — at every session, we see her attention span expanding. At first, she would only stay for about 15 minutes, but now she’ll stay for the whole hour.’
Alison Nolan, uses music daily to help her to teach son Conor, three, a variety of tasks.
“Conor loves music and we use music in his day-to-day life to encourage him to stand up because the music distracts him from the task,” says Nolan.
“We build everything into songs. We use nursery rhymes to bring out specific letters in his speech and language. It all comes through music therapy skills. He’s in his complete element when he comes to Jo Jingles.”
Jenny O’Connell brings her son Daniel, three, to meet other friends. “I bring Daniel purely for the socialisation. I love the fact that he has friends with Down Syndrome here. He loves music and being part of the group.
“Music groups hugely benefit social skills. They teach children to wait their turn, to make eye-contact, to pay attention, as well as expanding their attention spans. They also promote body awareness with songs like ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’, as well as promoting speech and language,” says music therapist and one of the directors of Music Therapy Ireland, Eli Chourdaki. She works with children and teenagers with profound mental and physical disabilities, as well as the elderly and those with long-term illnesses.
Chourdaki employs a wide range of techniques in her therapy sessions including singing, instrument playing, movement to music and song-writing, all tailored to the child’s individual needs.
“A lot of children with special needs have hearing sensitivities, where the child can’t stand the sound of the hairdryer or the hoover at home. All these things are very challenging and music therapy or music groups where the children repeat songs over and over again creates familiarity and safety where the children know what to expect,” she says.
She has also used music therapy to help alleviate emotional and behavioural difficulties in children with special educational needs.
“The smaller the impairment is, the more conscious a child is of it. Children who have speech impairments or hyperactivity or Asperger’s syndrome, for example, know they look, walk and talk the same as other children, but are still a bit different. We use song-writing and create CD’s with these children to help them express themselves.
“Children love hearing the same song over and over again because it’s familiar and they can relate to it. They love spending quality time with their parents. Relax and enjoy the music, dance around the room with your child, have a few little bongo drums or bells and let your child explore different sounds.”
* Jo Jingles music groups cost €8 per class and are payable per term. www.jojingles.com, 021-4375354; www.musictherapyireland.com
* Some recommended websites for using music and movement with children with special educational needs: www.supersimplesongs.com; www.songsforteaching.com; www.priorywoods.middlesbrough.sch.uk