I used to, but ...

24 April 2017

Children playing musical instruments

MUSIC is a natural part of life for most children and young people – in school, at home, and in their social lives. Exposure to it and experience of it has huge benefits. But is that the same for looked after children living in residential care?

That’s what Creative Scotland wanted to find out. The national arts organisation takes its newly-acquired role as a Corporate Parent seriously, and thought that looked after youngsters might not get the same access to music as others.

They asked us at CELCIS to find out if that was so, and it proved to be the case, with one constantly recurring phrase from children and young people becoming the key to it for me: “I used to, but ...”

What research had shown

Research had already shown there were benefits to engagement in music-making, including boosts for language and literacy skills, academic learning, and creativity.

Studies also showed high-quality music-making projects for looked after children can develop resilience in challenging situations, and improve negotiating skills, cooperative working, and learning to trust others. It can support healing for those who have been traumatised, boost self-esteem and identity, and it can also simply provide a chance for troubled youngsters to have some fun.

So what were the opportunities and barriers these children had in their access to music?

Starting the research

We identified four contrasting areas to meet looked after children. One was Glasgow, with 20-odd small children’s units and an active arts project called Arts in The City on which I had already worked in my music capacity. For a contrast we looked at Argyll and Bute, which has three residential units, at Dunoon, Helensburgh and Oban.

Two organisations approached us after they heard of the project: one was Care Visions, which has residential houses in Scotland; the other was Seamab, a small school in Kinross with about 20 younger children who have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Our research team then met with children and young people in the different areas, and members of staff, along with one of the musicians we had involved in the project. 

Using music activity and a simple set of questions we tried to learn about the children’s experiences of music and the barriers they faced in engaging with music. We also asked the staff about opportunities and experiences.

The discontinuity in children's lives

Children really enjoyed being involved in music but the big theme that arose out of it all was the difficulty in the discontinuity in their lives. That’s where that phrase came in, when a child would say something like: “I used to play piano but I moved school and they didn’t have piano lessons there.” 

We set up a variety of sessions with the different organisations, modelling music ideas for staff to use with children; working with a group of younger children we used picture books and musical instruments to create soundscapes and enhance the story.

We developed a short training session talking about the value of music to residential staff, getting the message across that it’s not just a leisure activity, there’s added value academically, and a healing value in rhythm and pattern.

In Glasgow we set up a session for children to come along to the Scottish Youth Theatre and experience different types of music.

It didn’t all go according to plan

We struggled to actually set up any structured events in one organisation, but that in itself was a vital lesson about the other side of the equation. When the discontinuity of these children’s lives meets the complexity of the residential care system it’s a recipe for problems.

Here’s a typical one. THe child was enjoying piano lessons, but then the teacher left and nobody took the responsibility for finding a new piano teacher. We provided staff with the name of a new piano teacher and it still didn’t happen.

If it was one’s own child you would just find another teacher – but there was just not the same kind of ownership, so for the child it was another “I used to, but ...”.

How people got around problems

However there were some great ways people found to get around these problems. A manager in Argyll and Bute felt music really resonated with one youngster, so she recruited a local hip-hop musician as a care worker, and he held sessions for the young people as part of his job.

There are also staff who are musicians or at least know a few chords on the guitar and some would share that with children, but for some there is a nervousness about boundaries, about sharing one’s own interest and personal taste in music. We have to get across that it’s OK to share those interests with young people: in the staff’s own homes their children would see that music is just an everyday part of life.

You have to be alert to what young people want, too: I was giving one young woman aged 16 a lift and she said more than anything she just wanted to go to the opera. No-one had asked her or considered it, and I don’t know why. I knew West Side Story was on in Glasgow at the time but no-one had suggested her going although it was well known she was passionate about music. 

We heard there were some tickets available in Glasgow for classics concerts, specially designed for children. Staff took them along and they had a great time, but if the offer hadn’t been made through the council it may not have happened.

Surprisingly some of the youngsters in Helensburgh had been to the T in the Park festival. It was fantastic that they had gone with staff, because something like that has risks, and staff have got to be prepared go outside the rota. You can’t change shift half-way through a set by the Stone Roses ... 

Staff confidence is important. If a troubled youngster is listening to darker types of music such as Eminem or Slipknot, some staff would ban it, but others just made a cup of tea and joined in listening, and maybe talked about the emotions it brought out.

Moving up the agenda

So our findings boiled down to a need to have culture and creativity higher up the agenda in care planning. We found in many instances it was being left for schools to do and not coming into the houses, as it would for young people living with their parents.

It should be the role of the child’s key worker to make sure that happens –  I was shocked to find a child having piano lessons at school and didn’t have a piano. As with private tuition, there was the myth that there was no funding, but those who were using and promoting music were finding money.

It comes back to this dual complexity, with disrupted lives meeting a system without the flexibility and simplicity of family life. But that has to be overcome, just for the help it can give children and their carers.

Interestingly but on reflection, many of the children liked the music of their parents, and in particular their dads’ music. That tells you about the impact of music, and it gives another opening to learn more about a youngster: if they end up talking about their dad because of the music, that could be a pretty good thing.

MOYRA HAWTHORN is a Consultant for CELCIS. A qualified and experienced social worker and residential care practitioner, she is also a piano teacher and a music therapist. She led an action research project into how music in all its forms could and should help shape the experiences of children and young people in residential care settings.

Creative Scotland will publish the full report in summer 2017.



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