Until a few years ago, I felt very awkward around kids and was worried that I might always be an amateur when it came to being a music therapist with young children. Not being a parent, my first extended encounter with young children came when I moved across the country for internship and worked as a part-time nanny. I had always liked kids for obviously cute reasons, but I was never someone that children were drawn to. Instead, I was mystified and convinced myself that some people had charisma with children and some did not.
I’m happy to report that after three years of nannying and teaching countless early childhood music classes, I’ve started de-mystifying what it takes to establish a friendly relationship with a child. As a music therapist, this rapport is essential to gaining a child’s trust and engaging a young client on a developmentally-appropriate, but fair, level. Speaking down to or patronizing a child will get you nowhere. Below are three ideas for establishing your own style of kid-friendly rapport.
1. Give the Child a Role. Kids love being right and in charge. Giving them a chance to shine and take a small responsibility shows that you trust the child and want to interact with them, instead of being the therapist who is always in charge. This can be a simple as asking to choose their favorite animal to add to Old MacDonald’s farm, requesting help in cleaning up instruments, or having them say their own name in a hello song.
Even better, give them the chance to correct you. Once, I had a boy in my music classes who didn’t readily engage in activities even after attending 3-4 times. He often sat in his mother’s lap with a blank expression on his face without much reaction to any song. While I was talking with his mom after class, I asked him if he knew “You Are My Sunshine”. He nodded and I started singing it, but there was still no reply. When I got to the last line, I decided to change the lyrics into “Please don’t take my sunshine…to school!”. His lit up and grinned. Instead of singing to him, we were now figuring out this song together. I tried again, “Please don’t take my sunshine…to the fire station?” Here was his big chance to be right. “Away!” he yelled. Disrupting his expectations for the lyrics also removed his expectations for the social roles and hierarchy he had assigned to both of us as teacher/student.
2. Speak (and Sing) Expressively. We know that children learn through emotions and speech. Combining these two dynamically can help music therapists communicate to children more effectively, which in turn helps reach their goals and objectives. But, dynamic expression was initially awkward for me. I felt stiff when forcing myself to look extra happy or emphasize my vocal range when talking because I was paying too much attention to how the adults nearby were perceiving my actions.
Realizing that the kids with whom I was working were soaking up all the emotional and social cues my exaggerated movements and speech offered got me to loosen up. All of these non-verbal communication clues are new and un-established in young children; amplifying these behaviors is a teaching tool that also builds relationships. In short, if you feel like you’re emphasizing too much, you’re probably just right.
3. Treat the Child with Respect. Yes, the music therapist is “in charge” and leads the session, but this doesn’t mean abandoning person-centered actions. Children realize when they are being talked down to or patronized. If they feel their efficacy as a participant in the session is compromised, so does the effectiveness of the therapeutic relationship and the session interventions.
To communicate that you and the child are on a level playing field make sure to acknowledge and verbalize interactions in a similar (if not simpler) way you might with an adult client. When collecting instruments, you can ask their permission with, “Are you finished with that scarf?” before declaring clean up time. Apologizing for any missteps (either real or as perceived by the child) is as simple as, “I’m so sorry that we didn’t have time to sing “Let It Go” this time. Next week if we finish playing drums instead of _____, we will have time to sing it.” Of course, safety is always a priority and our politeness may (briefly) be dropped in order to protect the child’s physical well-being if needed.
Those of you who have worked with young children, what are other child-centered techniques you utilize to establish a therapeutic rapport?