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Music Therapy in Fulton Schools is Changing Lives

Kids in parachute They say music is a universal language – besides enjoyment and entertainment, it is used in therapeutic settings to aid healing and manage disabilities. The music therapy program in Fulton County Schools (FCS) began as a small after-school service to kindergarten and first grade students at Conley Hills Elementary in 1991. Today, not only do 76 of the district’s 105 schools receive this education, but the school system music therapy program is the largest in the nation. Amber Weldon-Stephens, chair of FCS’ music therapy department, created the successful program that serves students with intellectual, orthopedic and emotional/behavioral disabilities and significant developmental delays. In addition to a team of 16 therapists, she has a handful of interns each year. Six interns are lined up for the fall of 2020, and FCS is listed on the national roster of music therapy internship programs. More than 100 student interns have been trained in Fulton having come from 89 colleges nationwide that have degree programs approved by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). All must be board certified for professional practice. Prior to Weldon-Stephens’ arrival, only one school district in Georgia had a music therapy program.

During that first year, Weldon-Stephens taught general music during the school day while developing the therapy classes on the side. “I knew music therapy was what I was meant to do,” she said. The program expanded and, though she had very little funding due to the 1990 budget cuts, she traveled to 13 schools with borrowed instruments from Conley Hills and a tape player. After five years, she hired another music therapist (MT) to split coverage of the district. Now she runs the program administratively a few days per week while still teaching in three schools, home-based at Sweet Apple Elementary. Last year she rolled off a two-year term as AMTA president but still serves the organization  in an advisory capacity.

What does music therapy look like in a classroom setting? Much like other therapies, music interventions are clinical and evidence-based methods that aim to increase desired skills or decrease unwanted behaviors. Many of us remember learning the ABCs or memorizing U.S. state names from singing a song. Similarly, learning other basic skills like walking properly, following multi-step directions, using social skills appropriately or de-escalating volatile emotions can become easier for children with disabilities with the help of music therapy techniques.

The program focuses on five domain areas: communications, cognitive function, fine and gross motor skills, social and emotional regulating and musicality.  A key tenet of music therapy is every child deserves a music education and is given the opportunity to develop a lifelong appreciation of it. After carefully assessing the student and reviewing the Individual Education Plan (IEP), the MT will design therapy sessions for small groups based on client needs.

FCS Early Childhood Services for Exceptional Children Coordinator Leah Carroll said, " Parents get so excited when they find out their child will be participating in music therapy as it's such a natural way to work on communication and social skills.” Besides musical instruments, MTs use manipulatives and sensory enhancements including parachutes, TheraBands, puppets, scarves and more to integrate the body in learning. Amber uses only lamp lighting to reduce sensory overload and bring a sense of calm. Song cards have textures that are more effective than Smartboards in meeting students’ needs for tactile experiences.

Heidi Moore’s son Jacob began music therapy at three months old and was in Weldon-Stephens’ class at Alpharetta Elementary. “I’ve personally seen the positive impact music therapy has had on my now 20-year old son who has Down syndrome, autism, and is a cancer survivor,” she said. “It has helped Jacob with communication, sign language, following directions, behavioral modification and pain management during cancer treatment.”

The retention rate for music therapists in Fulton is excellent, says Weldon-Stephens. Many interns have gone on to apply to work in the district, and therapists tend to stay long-term.

Matt Koperniak, Fulton’s Coordinator for the Performing and Fine Arts, commends Weldon-Stephens’ long-time leadership. “Over 1,000 students have been positively impacted through the work of our dedicated team of music therapists,” he said. “They have truly changed the lives of our students.”


Amber with Boy

Amber with Ukelele

boy in wheelchair