How Music Can Help Adopted And Fostered Children – Guest Post

Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with the lovely Cat McGill who is currently in the middle of a really exciting venture.  She is aiming to help adopted and fostered children through music with a therapeutic twist.  As regular readers of The Newby Tribe know, we adopted our two children back in 2015, and so I’m always interested in anything that can help adoptive and fostered families with their challenges.  I caught up with her as she is in the middle of a Kickstarter Project to get it off the ground, to find out more.

Hi Cat.  Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to  me.  Can you tell us a little about your background?

I originally trained as a secondary school music teacher, and taught music and psychology (my other favourite subject!) in school up until I had my daughter. Once I became a parent I didn’t want to go back to full time work, so I ended up doing various different short term projects; working for Sing Up to facilitate music sessions in my local SEN schools, a research project with the Oxford Brookes Babylab looking at how Health Visitors make assessments of the relationship between mums and babies, and running a folk festival! (I’ve always enjoyed variety!) Over the years I got more drawn in to the SEN world, and was part of a group of Sing Up tutors who trained in Makaton to help develop new resources for the Makaton Charity. These days I do a lot of work around using music and song in SEN settings – training artists and teachers, and other Makaton tutors, as well as spending time in schools myself. My husband and I adopted our son nearly three years ago, and since then I have tried to learn as much as I can about adoption and trauma, and find different ways that I can help my son Tickle develop and flourish.

Your new venture sounds really innovative and exciting – can you tell us more about it?

I am going to be writing an album of new songs designed to support and nurture adopted children. The songs will tap in to the innate musicality of our brains, and help with filling in developmental gaps in adopted children.
The idea came about when I was reading about a thing psychologists call ‘Infant Directed Speech’ – the particular way that we instinctively talk to babies, what we might call baby talk! A researcher called Stephen Malloch had identified some particular musical features of this type of speech, which seemed to be quite common across different people, and even different countries and cultures. In other words, no matter where in the world you are, parents were using the same sort of rhythmic patterns, pitch, melodic phrases, and vocal tones to communicate with their babies.
I found this pretty interesting, as it seems to imply that there are certain musical features that are instinctive to us as humans, kind of ‘built in’ to our brains. We know how important it is to communicate with babies in the early years, to help build the skills needed for social interactions and communication, and it looks like we are intuitively using music, or certainly ‘musicality’ to do that. I started to think about the children who may have missed out on this sort of interaction in their early years, and whether there was a way that they could benefit from it later on in life, by incorporating those same instinctive musical patterns in to new songs.
It’s going to be interesting writing songs this way, as it’s different to anything I’ve done before! On one hand I am going to be researching the different musical features of Infant Directed Speech, and working out how to incorporate those in to new songs, but at the same time I also want them to be songs that are fun and engaging, that families will enjoy listening to and singing along with. As part of the project I’m going to be talking to a lot of adoptive families to find out how they like to use music in their everyday life, and what sort of topics I could sing about that would support or interest their children.

How did you come up with the idea of using music therapeutically specifically for adopted children?

I have been using music to support communication with children with Special Needs for a few years now, and it was one of the things I discussed with Tickle’s Social Worker very early on in the matching stage. Tickle does have special needs, but in addition he has significant trauma from his early life and from the adoption itself, so for me it was a natural progression from the general sort of singing we do throughout the day to trying to use it in more of a therapeutic way. There is a lot of cross-over in what I would do in SEN settings with the things adoptive families would benefit from – using music to explore feelings, turn-taking, different sensations and sensory inputs and so on.

How can music help adopted children and what types of issues/problems do you think it helps adopted parents deal with?

Honestly, there are so many ways that it can help that you are only really limited by your imagination! At risk of turning this question in to an essay, I have just picked out a couple of examples of ways in which parents or teachers can use music on a day to day basis, with absolutely no knowledge or musical ability needed at all!
Music can be a safe way for parents to interact with their adoptive children, particularly if the child finds the relationship difficult. On a very basic level, the child can make sounds with musical instruments (or their voice) and the parent can imitate the sound on another instrument or their own voice. This may not seem like much, but this indicates to the child that you have heard them, and that they are your complete focus of attention. For the best effect, try and mimic the tone, pitch, rhythm etc as exactly as you can. Tickle loves doing this; you can see that he absolutely thrives on having someone focus on him so completely, and it’s really helped our relationship. We usually do it with vocal sounds, but for children who find interaction difficult, a selection of basic musical instruments might be just what they need to engage in the game.
You can also use music and song to help with sensory experiences. A lot of adopted children have under-developed sensory systems, and music can be a fun and engaging way of working on this. For example, getting children to make noises with various different wind instruments – from recorders to trombones! The force of breath needed in each of those cases is completely different, and for Tickle particularly we’ve found he really enjoys brass instruments. He needs to use a lot of breath to get a note out and it’s a work out for his whole body! Also you get a lot of sensory feedback from musical instruments; a lot of children I’ve worked with really enjoy feeling the vibrations of an instrument as I play it, or experimenting with different ways of making sound. If you’ve got a guitar lying around at home then let your kids explore it!

I understand that you have used your music to help your adopted son – can you tell us a little more about the differences you saw when you started to use music with him?

 As well as the things I’ve mentioned above, one of the main ways we use music at home is for transitioning between activities. We started doing this during introductions, born out of sheer desperation! Tickle wasn’t really used to car journeys, and also didn’t have a lot of language, so would just keep repeating “Are we there yet?” (I know this isn’t particularly unusual, but he would say it approximately every five seconds…) Hence the ‘We’re nearly there’ song was born! It provided a way to keep him entertained, as well as reinforcing the message that we were on our way to somewhere, but weren’t quite there yet. After a few weeks he was joining in with the song, and eventually would sing it to himself in the back of the car as we drove along!
We also use songs for tidy up time, a fun distraction from the frustrating task, and a game to see if we can put everything away before we’ve finished singing. Essentially, any time Tickle is dysregulated or finding something difficult, if I sing to him about what we’re trying to do, chances are he’ll be able to calm enough to do it. In the early days we were singing pretty much constantly – one song for getting dressed, another for cleaning teeth, another for in the car… you get the idea!

How would you anticipate schools may be able to use your music to help adopted children who are struggling?

That’s not an easy question to answer as I don’t know yet what form the songs are going to take – however I would welcome suggestions from teachers as to what they would find useful! Tickle’s school has a CD of his favourite songs which they put on for fun, or when he needs to calm down, for example. Alternatively, you might want a song to help a child learn about their different body parts, to manage emotions or model appropriate behaviour, to build self esteem… the list is endless. I am open to all ideas and hope to have a range of different songs on the final recording.

I notice that you are aiming it for children under 10 – is there a reason for this and do you think that it would work with older children?

Yes, it’s a fairly flexible age range but I did want to plan it out with a particular group in mind so that I could focus the songs and make sure they are age appropriate. The group that I was thinking of when I set up the project was children who are adopted slightly older – perhaps 5 or 6, so who still very much need the nurture that they have missed out on as a baby, but who might feel a bit old for lots of baby talk and nursery rhymes. I do think that it’s very much down to the individual child as to whether they like what I produce, so there is no reason why older children won’t enjoy the music, but because I have quite a specific aim in mind I wanted to be clear about that. In the future I’d like to do an album for adopted teenagers, but one thing at a time..!

How can we help get your new venture off the ground?

I’m in the process of applying to the Arts Council for funding, and have already received a grant from the Folk Camps Society, but I wanted to set up a Kickstarter to provide a way for people to engage with the project right from the start. There are lots of fab rewards to be had – you can pre-order your copy of the CD, or if you like you can even sing on it! I’m hoping to make a couple of music videos, so if you’ve ever fancied starring in one of those there is an opportunity here! Every little helps, and even if you can only give a small amount, or share the project with friends and family, that will help me enormously. Please also follow me on twitter and facebook for updates – @folkycat

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