The Secret Ingredient to Child Engagement

Does your child have difficulty staying engaged with you? Do they not interact with you at all? Or maybe your child does interact with you, but the interaction is very short? Well, you are not alone! There is a vital step that your child has to take before they can leap into an interaction with you. This secret ingredient is grabbing their attention. Your child will not be capable of interaction until they are available and ready. Let’s take a look at Mary’s journey.

When Mary first began her session at Back Mountain Music Therapy, she wandered around the room in her own world and did not appear to be attentive. The therapist mainly followed Mary’s lead by using the music to shadow her movement as she explored the room. In order to get Mary to engage with the therapist, we first needed to work towards gaining Mary’s attention. She would not be able to interact with someone until she was alert and available to engage. In other words, no interaction would occur until Mary was able to pay attention to the world outside of herself. To work towards this, we used a child’s favorite activity: PLAY!

Since we had captured Mary’s interest, we used familiar tunes like the ABC’s to provide structure and repetitiveness. The familiar tune and the chart depicting the ABC’s, created a familiar, predictable environment for Mary. With the therapist’s help to not only attend but to play in the safety of the enviroment, this enabled Mary to know when the music started and stopped and when it would begin, A sense of safety is necessary for her to build a trusting relationship through this aural play room that we construct with the music. The room was set up, specifically with Mary in mind, to promote her ability to attend to the therapist. Initially, she appeared to have some difficulty with regulating sensory systems, tolerating environmental noise such as bright lights, the sense of vibrations, the tolerance of sound and it’s movement – all that information coming at her at once. We started with soft music to ensure that Mary did not become overloaded by the sound. Dialing the sound down created less bombarding information for Mary to process. At this time, the less information she had to process at once, the easier it was for her brain to regulate. As Mary began to interpret the information around her, the easier it was for her to maintain focus. Focusing enabled her to process the information, and then respond to the therapist, the music, and the play. Over time, we were able to stretch the parameters of the music by slowly yet incrementally, increasing the dynamic and the tempo of the music. By stretching these parameters, Mary could focus and find the interaction pleasurable. We began to challenge Mary to adapt to different environments. Again, we challenged in increments, as her behavior suggested just how much we could stretch the parameters and just how often she could tolerate these tempo and dynamic challenges. This was an important part of this process. Because not every situation is the same, we can not always provide Mary these circumstances and being able to adapt is part of life. By adapting the environment to Mary’s individual differences while simultaneously trying to gain her attention using her interests, she was encouraged to leave her little world and respond to what was waiting outside for her.

One day as Mary walked around the room, the therapist reached over to her and tickled her tummy. Mary smiled and giggled in response to being tickled. She appeared to really enjoy this interaction. What we saw next was huge for Mary! She walked back up to the therapist with a full smile and touching her own tummy. An invitation to the therapist, to play some more! This was her way of asking to be tickled again. Mary was attentive and joined in the interaction with the therapist! Mary intentionally walked back over to the therapist and kept the interaction going between them. This was not the aimless wandering we first saw. We finally not only had Mary’s attention, but she was also beginning to engage with intention!

Acquiring Mary’s attention was significant progress from when she first started. Mary went from walking around the room in her own world with no goal, to intentionally attending with her enviroment. Even though this was great progress for Mary, it is important to note that she was only attentive for a few moments in that interaction before she would walk away or disconnect. The therapy does not stop there, read next week and see where we go from there!

The two driving features in Mary’s interaction with the therapist was the play and the music that was responsible for supporting the play. The music we used for Mary’s aural playroom added energy and excitement into the interaction. This energy and excitement provided by the music was not possible at the start. We had to first establish where exctly Mary was mentally. Combining the elements of music and play, allowed us not only to draw Mary into the relationship with the therapist, but once we established the relationship, we were able to stretch the environmental conditions (the excitement in the music, dynamics and tempo). The therapist and I expressed excited facial expressions, body movement, and added energy to the music to enhance the experience for Mary. The best way to grab a child’s attention is to fully embrace the play yourself.

Bridget McCormick, Music Therapy Intern

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