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Music Improves Functional Receptive Communication Skills

One of the biggest complaints I hear from parents is that their child does not follow directions very well.

Kids are asked to follow directions more times than we realize throughout the day. Each time we ask our kids to do something they use receptive communication to receive and process that information.

Every transition includes multiple steps in preparation. Throughout the day we instruct our children how to dress appropriately for the weather, how to play safely, finish your dinner...yes, eat three more bites! Aside from being a strong-willed kiddo, some kids just have a hard time processing our words.

It isn't that they cannot hear, but their brain cannot make sense of the language they hear. When kids have difficulty processing language they are often diagnosed with a receptive language disorder. They have difficulty understanding our words and therefore difficulty following directions.

Are you in the same boat? Well… I have a simple strategy for you!


Try singing directions!


For those of you who say you can’t sing, Dori and I have full confidence you can!

“Just keep singing, just keep singing, just keep singing singing singing. What do we do? We sing sing sing!”

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you check out my previous post "How to promote verbalization through music".

In music therapy, the structure of sessions naturally sets up the environment to sing in order to:


promote direction following, self regulation, decision making, and attention skills.


I typically sing throughout the majority of the session, especially if I am working with younger kids.

As I mentioned in my previous post "5 singable children’s books that help you bond with your child", music is a natural organizer. Sometimes, it may be your child is having difficulties processing the direction you have given.


By using music, you can help you child process what is being said to him/her.


Essentially, their brain is able to recruit other parts of the brain to "make sense" of the language that is being sung to them. The easist way to do this is to “sing a simple song that kids can simply sing!” (Arnston, 2013).

3 simple tips for using music to increase your child’s receptive communication skills:

1. Use familiar melodies – I piggy back familiar songs the majority of the time when I am working with younger kids. It’s a super simple and easy way to incorporate music into giving directions.

For example, use the tune Ants Go Marching to transition to the car, "John goes marching to the car, the car, the car".

2. Repetition is key! – It is said that they best way to learn something is through repetition, repetition, repetition. Most children’s songs are naturally set up this way.

If your child doesn't respond to your directions the first time. Repeat the song giving an additional visual cue or model as explained next.

3. Add movement to your directions – “The combination of music and movement acts as a way to stimulate multiple areas of the brain". Studies suggest that the combination of music, movement, and speech activate and strengthen a network of brain regions that overlap with those areas thought to be abnormal in children with autism spectrum disorder (Drake, 2014).


Now that I’ve given you all this information, here are a few examples to help you put these ideas in to practice:

Say your child takes off her shoes as you are trying to leave the house. If you attempt to help her put her shoes back on by giving verbal directions, “It’s time to put on your shoes!”, it can turn in to a game and struggle for control. However, if you tap in to music and sing (as I do in my music therapy sessions), the sung directions create an enjoyable way to follow directions!

You create an opportunity for a shared experience through the music! Using the melody to “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, you can sing, “This is the way we put on our shoes, put on our shoes, put on our shoes. This is the way we put on our shoes when it’s time to go”.

Creating a positive environment by singing directions works like a charm! No more struggling for power and control!


A lot of our kids have difficulty with transitions and maintaining attention to task. They may try to leave prematurely or stay longer than is necessary.

I use a visual time in these scenarios. actually looks like THIS!

The visual timer is a concrete way to represent time. Using the tune “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, sing “When the red’s all gone we’ll be done. When the red’s all gone we’ll be done. When the red’s all gone we’ll be done today. When the red’s all gone we’ll be done.”


This can help your child remain regulated by having a musical and visual way to understand the information.


Below are two more songs I often find help kids to follow directions and transition:

(This is the tune to “Are you Sleeping?”)

(This is the tune to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road)

When your child is having difficulty processing directions, give them another resource and sing! These simple strategies have helped my clients in following directions time and time again and I hope they help your child as well!

If you'd like to learn more about using music to help your child increase receptive communication skills, schedule a free consultation.

We'd love to meet you!


Schedule a free consultation!

Happy Singing!

Cassie Smith, MT-BC


Arnston, R. (2013). Using Music to Enhance Speech and Language Skills in Young Children.

Drake, J. (2014). Music Therapy and Communication Disabilities: Singing, Speech, and the Brain. In BSU Honors Program Theses and Projects.

Harvey, T. C. (2012). The effect of one-on-one music education on a child.

McLaurin-Jones, T., Odogwu, C., Brooks, B., & Egu-Okoronkwo, N. (2017). Can music therapy improve social interaction and verbal communication in individuals with autism spectrum disorder?.

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