Relax! Helping Disabled Students Succeed Through Music and Deep Breathing


In the context of public school special education, I have had the privilege of facilitating several music-assisted relaxation sessions. A wide range of ages and types of disabilities, such as Down syndrome, autism, mental retardation, and Cerebral Palsy, have been represented in these organizations. Learning to relax is something that can be conditioned, which is something I stress to my clients and their teachers. As a result, learning how to relax is a skill that can be honed and perfected for more significant future benefits.

Even though the students and instructors I support in special education classes rarely face the kinds of everyday stresses that would necessitate relaxation, I’ve found that it can be helpful nonetheless. Many of the students in special education, in my experience, have difficulty processing the sheer volume of information presented to them daily. As a result, most educators are aware of the need to provide students with a place to escape the noise and distractions of the classroom and focus on their work in peace.

Sometimes there is no apparent trigger for a pupil to become angry or unhappy. When this occurs, it’s helpful to have a tried-and-true method of dealing with stress, like listening to music or practicing relaxation techniques, as part of the behavior intervention strategy. Students who take part in relaxation activities in smaller groups may also gain from the increased opportunities for social contact, gross motor mobility, stretching, and the development of leadership skills.

I have tried out several music-assisted relaxation activities with youngsters of school age. While there is no hard and fast rule on introducing relaxation exercises into the classroom, here are some things to remember.

The first step in creating a soothing environment is selecting the appropriate music. The music is characterized mainly by a sluggish tempo and an underlying rhythmic pulse that is easy to anticipate. A tempo of 60–80 beats per minute is what I would suggest. It’s best if there are no words to the music being played, although singing is allowed, provided it doesn’t interfere too much with the experience. The tune ought to be soothing, and it shouldn’t be atonal or experimental. Choose tracks with no jarring transitions in tempo, volume, or beat. The melody, likewise, should not dip too low or rise too high in pitch. Some of the best songs I’ve utilized in my groups are by Enya, Kevin Kern, and Daniel Kobialka.

The individual leading the relaxation, whether a teacher or a student, should maintain a quiet, even tone. Listen to the music as you practice speaking slowly and clearly. The volume of the music should be high enough to drown out background noise without making the facilitator raise their voice over an average speaking level. The facilitator should sit in a chair to effectively illustrate the breathing or stretching exercises.

The third component of these relaxation teams is breathing. Begin by having everyone in the group take several deep, cleansing breaths through their noses and mouths. Keep calm by doing some slow, deep breaths in and out to the count of eight or ten. A verbal reinforcement strategy for breathing involves describing the inhale as “revitalizing,” “fresh,” and “relaxing,” and the exhale as “discomfort,” “anxiety,” and “stress” to help reinforce the behavior. The facilitator should tell the group to settle into their seats, close their eyes if they choose, and resume normal breathing after a few minutes of deep breathing. The pace of your breathing should slow down and settle into a rhythm.

During our relaxation sessions with these groups of students with disabilities, I emphasize deep breathing and “stretching” as the primary components. The “concrete” motions the group can imitate from the facilitator’s demonstration are simple gross motor movements. My immediate go-to activities consist of forward and backward shoulder rolls, reaching for the ceiling and the floor, and gentle lateral and forward head tilts. Going on and swinging the arms up and down like very slow jumping jacks are two more effective stretches. Add drama by breathing in and out in time with specific moves.

Imagery is a powerful tool for facilitating relaxation in groups that do not include people with impairments. Imagine a gentle glow that gently warms and soothes every part of your body, or let yourself be led to a tranquil spot in nature, complete with soothing sounds and no worries. Music with environmental noises or large graphics with client-preferred settings may be helpful to applications after a relaxation pattern is familiar and established. Still, most of my special education students do not respond well to abstract imaginations and descriptions.

Breathing and large muscle movements should be identical at the start and finish of a relaxing session. The facilitator can experiment with different stretches and breathing techniques between these intervals. Students are given the chance to take charge and exercise agency. Students can be given image cards depicting several gross motor movements and asked to choose one to present to the class. The facilitator may also distribute complementary instruments, such as ocean drums, to heighten the sense of immersion. Taking turns under a shared 6-by-10-foot parachute is a great way to improve your breathing and pace.

Depending on the participants’ attention spans, the relaxing session should take five to ten minutes. If this method of collective relaxation is used regularly, the pupils will gradually slow down even before the music starts playing out of respect for the ritual. The music that teachers listen to when they need to unwind can have a profound effect on students who are experiencing emotional distress. On days when an unexpected change to the school schedule has broken the traditional pattern and the pupils are exceptionally off-task, the relaxation treatment may also be helpful.

A student’s IEP goals can be a great place to start when planning a music-assisted relaxing program. Music-facilitated group relaxation allows for monitoring progress toward measurable objectives such as following directions, making choices, moving the body, counting, paying attention, gesturing, and talking.

Relax and let out a long, deep sigh.

Mr. Tague has nearly a decade of experience as a music therapist with children and people with impairments and health difficulties, and he is board certified in the field. He is a director at a company that provides music therapy and a regular speaker at regional and local events. Please see his websites, Music Makes Sense ( and Music For the Heart (, for further information on making efficient use of music.

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