An Inclusive School Choir for Children with Autism in Israel: Using Grounded Theory to Explore the Perceived Benefits and Challenges
By Nirit Raichel & Yael Eilat
This study examined the role and place of an inclusive children’s choir in Israel for children with autism and neurotypical children. 16 individuals participated in the study, including ten staff members from a school for children with autism, four staff members from a mainstream school, two eleven-year old girls from the mainstream school who sang in the choir, and four parents from both schools whose children sang in the choir. The study utilized grounded theory with purposive sampling and semi-structured interviews. Categorical analysis of the data was used. The description of the results demonstrates that the programme filled six major roles: musical, social, educational, cultural, emotional, and inclusive; although there were challenges to this inclusive music making opportunity. In addition, we found that an inclusive choir can change its participants’ social perceptions of the “other”. Its success is dependent on the administration’s positive attitude, cooperation of educational staff from both schools – mainstream and special education – and the sensitivity of the choir’s conductor.
Keywords: inclusion; autism; inclusive choir; community music; singing
My son... was terrified of the children [with autism]. He was always afraid of them, but always included them because he had to. And now... he goes to the choir rehearsals so happily...This is how Dorit, the inclusion coordinator at a mainstream school in Israel, described her son’s fear of children with autism and the change he underwent after joining the inclusive choir. A choir that includes children with autism, alongside neurotypical peers, is termed an inclusive choir. Such a choir is characterized by its inclusion of children with communication difficulties.The inclusive choir in this study was established six years before the research began. In Israel, school principals must choose one of the arts to teach as part of the school curriculum, and in both schools where the study was conducted, the chosen art form was music. The participants from the mainstream school were mostly girls who had chosen to join the choir without audition. The participants from the school for special education were mainly boys and were selected for their love for music and ability to produce sounds, and did not necessarily possess clear verbal ability.
The choir discussed in this study was established to form a singing group to appear at ceremonies in both schools. It is unique in including children with autism who love to sing, together with their neurotypical peers. Thus, contact was created and focused around a joint activity popular with two different populations of children. All choir participants shared the desire to sing in it.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disorder that leads to behavioral, emotional, interpersonal communication difficulties (American Psychiatric Association, 2015). The disorder is neurological with symptoms often identifiable during early childhood. Language can be limited, and many individuals with ASD have difficulty with interpersonal communication, difficulty in making eye contact, misunderstandings in nonverbal communication and facial expressions, and difficulty in making peer contact. People with ASD tend to be dependent on routine, sensitive to changes in their environment, and can be focused on details unrelated to the current situation. Repetitiveness is manifested in bodily movements, behavior, and expressions. Some also suffer from sleep disorders and seizures. However, the range and severity of the symptoms greatly varies and some individuals have normal cognitive abilities.
Inclusion Activities for Children with Autism
Inclusion in an educational framework means that children with special needs are interacting with neurotypical children their own age (Tur-Kaspa & Cohen, 2004). During such an interaction, a child with autism may initiate a connection in a verbal and focused manner, sometimes at a similar level to that of their peers participating in the activity (Koegel, Vernon, Koegel, Koegel, & Paullin, 2012). The significance of inclusion is that such interactions demonstrate that the capabilities of children with ASD do exist (Harte, 2009). Studies found that children with autism initiate interactions during shared activities with peers by using manipulation to attract other children’s attention (Kangas, Uusiautti, & Määttä, 2011; Koegel et al., 2012). The children’s desire to make contact was expressed in talking or through behavior (Kangas et al., 2011).
Peer mediation has been found to greatly benefit children with autism (Harper, Symon, & Frea, 2008). Klein and Yablon (2008) argued that peers mediating the environment for children with autism make it easier for them to understand what is happening and respond appropriately. The purpose of the mediation is to transmit knowledge, focus the child’s attention, or explain connections. The more the mediator is attentive to communication from the child he or she is mediating, the more effective the mediation (Harper et al., 2008; Klein & Yablon, 2008). Inclusion activities for children with ASD and their mainstream peers can be through singing. In musical activities, such as a choir, it has been found that rhythm, tunes, and lyrics within structured activity, improve behavioral change (Blair, Umbreit, Dunlap, & Gilsoon, 2007). It would appear that for a child with ASD, singing in a choir could help him or her grow.
Inclusion Through Singing for Children with Autism
Singing is a mode of expression granted to every human being at birth (Smith, 2006). Wallace (2008) believes singing capabilities are normative for some children with autism. Iseminger (2009) argued that repeating a structured musical activity like singing could lessen anxiety. In addition, singing itself, not necessarily in a social context, has been found to reduce anxiety and is calming (Parker, 2010; Vaz, 2010). A school choir is intended to provide a child with an outlet for communication and expression (Harper et al., 2008; Ofsted, 2009; Wills, 2011). Choral performances offer students the excitement of giving to the audience (Amiran-Pougatchov, 1974; Lautersztein-Pitlik, 2010). Singing in a choir may also improve the self-worth of the children singing in it (Cohen, 2012; Wills, 2011). Additionally, choirs can enable social cohesion and preserve values and cultural heritage (Lautersztein-Pitlik, 2010; Shapira, 2003).
It has been found that participants in choirs that integrated individuals with special needs develop social interaction and communication skills (Branigan & Barker, 2015). In studies on choirs that integrated populations with special needs of various ages, that emotional well-being of all participants increased (Branigan & Barker, 2015; Stonehouse, 2013). A study of 600 choir participants found that singing mediated six mechanisms in the body that could bring about health and emotional well being (Clift, Hancox, Morrison, Hess, Kreutz, & Stewart, 2010). These included: mood adjustment and control, distraction from daily worries, reduction in anxiety through deep breathing, reduction of isolation through interaction with others, reduction of fatigue while increasing alertness, and decreasing passivity by demanding active participation. It has also been found that people with disabilities can express an equal ability through song, and their voices can be heard (Merkt, 2012; Moss, 2009).
The existence of an inclusive choir can influence a change in the community’s attitude towards those who are different (Branigan & Barker, 2015; Merkt, 2012) and can create a healthier and more united community (Branigan & Barker, 2015). The existence and operation of an inclusive choir demands creativity from those leading it (Branigan & Barker, 2015; Merkt, 2012). The success of a choir that includes young people with disabilities depends on providing opportunities to take part in joint and popular activities with their peers in a safe and friendly place with support and encouragement of adults (Stonehouse, 2013).
Peer integration in shared and structured activities enables improvement in the social abilities (Frea, Craig-Unkefer, Odom, & Johnson, 1999) and learning socially appropriate behaviour (Harper et al., 2008) of children with autism. Children with autism are motivated to cooperate with peers in an activity they love. It is important to teach the peers before inclusion how to encourage cooperation (Pierce & Schreibman, 1997; Van Weelden, 2001; Vitany & Reiter, 2006).
Inclusion must also use attractive methods and employ great sensitivity towards the including children – so that they will want to participate in the activity (Israel Ministry of Education, 2008). Some experiences may not be pleasant for the including children, and it is important that the neurotypical students are prepared for this (Van Weelden, 2001; Vitany & Reiter, 2006). For example, the including children are sometimes caught in a dilemma of choosing either singing in the choir or a different activity. Wolff (2001) explicitly stated that children must never be forced into a situation where they must choose between activities.
Motivation for the children’s cooperation in the musical activity can be created through musical communication. Communication happens using touch, movement, eye contact, voice, or sound (Zalel, 2005). Touching a child with autism on the arm attracts his attention (Richman, 2009). Movement, such as pointing in a particular direction, is another means of attracting attention. Children with autism tend to look at the person pointing, rather than at the finger, but consistently repeating the pointing movement many times over may help them to understand the gesture. Children with autism have difficulty making eye contact (American Psychiatric Association, 2015), although eye contact is also a means of attracting the attention of children with autism (Richman, 2009). It is important to give them reinforcement with positive cues and social rewards (smiling, sounds or touch) every time they communicate with a peer so they will repeat this action. Making a sound is also a means of communication – varying the use of voice and volume, or using a musical instrument, often attracts the attention of children with autism (Richman, 2009). These methods of communication are necessary for successful inclusion.
In conclusion, choirs and inclusive activities have been found to be mutually beneficial for neurotypical individuals and those with various needs. However, there have been few research studies that have examined the value of children’s choirs for the participants and other stakeholders.
The literature suggests that an inclusive children’s choir may provide children with ASD to be socially integrated, through a form of peer mediation. Inclusion may also provide growth and challenge for all the children in the choir. The purpose of the study is, therefore, to examine the perspective of the role and place of a children’s choir that includes children with autism, among those participating in it as well as administration, educational staff, inclusion coordinator, teaching assistant, parents, and students.
The research question is: How do the partners in the inclusive choir (administration, educational staff, inclusion coordinators, teaching assistant, parents, and children) perceive the choir’s role and place in the mainstream school and in the school for children with ASD?
The research goal was to examine the participants’ attitudes of the inclusive choir, its role and place in the mainstream school, and in the school for children with autism. For this study, a qualitative research methodology was selected and the genre for gathering data and analyzing it was grounded theory. The purpose of qualitative research is to provide interpretation of a phenomenon, understand its significance for the participants, their environment and the researcher (Shelski & Alpert, 2007). Grounded theory was chosen as the way to gather and analyze data, and relies on participants’ explanations regarding the researched phenomenon, comparison of the data, and identification of shared attitudes (Dushnik, 2011).
The study focused on an inclusive choir comprising 14 children from grades 5-6, aged 11-12, at Tmarim School (pseudonym), and five children, aged 11-13, with autism on a medium functioning level, from Zamir School (pseudonym). The research context was Tmarim School in northern Israel, with around 360 children in grades 1-6, aged 6-12; and nearby Zamir School, with 70 children on the autism spectrum, aged 6-14. Demographic information is shown in Table 1.Tmarim School also integrates some children with special needs; these children were not included in the inclusive choir because the teachers of the special needs children in Tmarim were not available to participate.
Yael, the primary researcher, was a music teacher at a special school and conducted an inclusive choir. In the past she had encountered many difficulties with the educational system and professional isolation which created the need to understand whether the existence of the inclusive choir would be significant to its partners and not only to her. Nirit is Yael’s academic advisor.
The method of selecting research participants was purposive sampling. With this method, the researcher chose a group of interviewees in advance; according to criteria that she felt would provide the best answers to the research question (Creswell, 2013).
The study used a purposive sample of 16 participants: two children from the Tmarim School (who had expressed their loyalty and devotion to the choir); two parents of children in the choir from Tmarim School, and two parents from Zamir School (who supported their children’s participation in the choir); two homeroom teachers from each school; two teaching assistants from Zamir School – who participated in non-musical aspects of the choir and were responsible for helping individual children and the class and school as a whole (Israel Ministry of Education, 2011a); two inclusion coordinators from the schools; and the two school principals.
Parents were selected so as to examine their perception of the relationships in the inclusive choir and their influence outside the school. The homeroom teachers were chosen so as to understand the significance of their students’ participation in the choir. The teaching assistant and inclusion coordinators were chosen because of their long-term involvement in the choir. The school principals were chosen in order to understand their stance on the research topic.
|Name||Role||School and Position|
|1. Noy||A girl singing in the choir.||5th grader, Tmarim School.|
|2. Shir||A girl singing in the choir.||5th grader, Tmarim School.|
|3. Inbal||Noy’s mother.||Noy attends Tmarim School.|
|4. Nurit||Shir’s mother.||Shir attends Tmarim School.|
|5. Ella||Moshe and Yisraela’s mother.||Moshe attends Zamir School and Yisraela sings in the junior choir and attends Tmarim School.|
|6. Shanina||Coral’s mother.||Coral attends Zamir School.|
|7. Yaffa||5th grade homeroom teacher.||Teacher at Tmarim School.|
|8. Yael||6th grade homeroom teacher.||Teacher at Tmarim School.|
|9. Iren||Homeroom teacher for medium functioning students, ages 13-14.||Teacher at Zamir School.|
|10. Amalia||Homeroom teacher for medium and low functioning students, ages 12-13.||Teacher at Zamir School.|
|11. Dana||Teaching assistant.||Works at Zamir School.|
|12. Yankele||Teaching assistant.||Works at Zamir School.|
|13. Dorit||Inclusion coordinator.||Coordinator at Tmarim School.|
|14. Yoheved||Inclusion coordinator.||Coordinator at Zamir School.|
|15. Simha||School Principal.||Principal of Tmarim School.|
|16. Aluma||School Principal.||Principal of Zamir School.|
Interviews were semistructured, with the topics and probing questions related to the research question prepared in advance, but used in a flexible order (see Appendix A). The interviewees answered freely, and the interviewer could respond to new topics raised by the interviewee. Thus, individual responses could be given while making the best use of the time (Sabar Ben-Yehoshua, 2006).
The interviews were undertaken and recorded by Yael and were held at a time and place convenient for the participants. Communication with the interviewees was by email and telephone. The children were interviewed for approximately 20-minutes, and the adults were interviewed for around 40-minutes, in their homes. The members of the teaching staff were interviewed at their schools. The interviewees knew the interviewer. The interviewees did not review the transcript prior to the data analysis.
Participants freely consented to take part in the study. Adult participants gave written permission and the children gave oral consent. The interviewees’ anonymity was protected, and all participants and both schools were given pseudonyms. No photographs or video clips were included due to laws of privacy that are not sufficiently clear in the Director General's Circular of the Israeli Ministry of Education (Israel Ministry of Education, 2003).
Yael conducted the data analysis using grounded theory and categorical analysis (Bowen, 2006). Categorical analysis is a systematic process, including a series of five re-creatable stages. The first stage involved open coding of the initial categories from the interviews. During the second stage, the categories were coded more precisely. During the third stage, a system of categories was created in its final form. The fourth stage was the creation of a hierarchy between the categories, and the central categories were determined. During the fifth stage, the grounded theory was written. The theory was based on categories that emerged from the transcript analysis, research literature, and previous theories in the field of research. The analysis was performed using the annotation method, which entails use of comments in the margins of text, coding and categorizing with an emphasis on the similarities and differences between texts.
The study findings raised the advantages alongside the challenges in operating the inclusive choir. Two main interrelated categories in analysis of the 16 interviews: 1) the roles of the inclusive choir and 2) challenges. The first category had six subcategories including: a musical role, a social role, and educational role, a cultural role, an emotional role, and the role of inclusion. The second had two subcategories including: “it’s hard to cope with” and the children’s developmental differences.
The Roles of the Inclusive Choir – “In This Way They are Given All the Skills”
A Musical Role
The participants’ comments show the choir’s musical role was expressed in the capability of vocal production, and practicing singing in harmony. Dana, one of the teaching assistants noted, “They achieve such vocal quality with the songs... they sing in a round.” Noy’s mother, Inbal found the children had, .“The ability to integrate within the harmony.”
The choir exposed the child to new, sometimes unique, songs. “They learn new songs... if they aren’t exposed to them here, they won’t hear them anywhere,” Dana, one of the teaching assistants from Zamir stated.
Entry criteria for the inclusive choir were a love of singing and willingness to participate. Some people believed that the ability to utter a sound was enough, and others thought that someone needed to know how to sing to be accepted to the choir.
The quality of the singing was also debated. Some people thought basic singing ability should be a condition of acceptance, and others the ability to sing well. One of the choir members, Shir, said, “Anyone who loves singing and is good at it,” while Noy’s mother said, “I believe you can’t be part of a choir if you can’t sing at all...” Aluma, the principal at Zamir said something similar, “Children talk... if they sing in the choir, they need to have this basic criterion.”
Some participants believed singing was an innate ability, and could be developed by suitable teaching, whereas others believed it was a talent, that not everyone was born with. Shir said, “Singing is making a sound. Everyone can do it.” However, Iren, the homeroom teacher at Zamir said, “Not everyone, even if they have a voice, can sing.” Even if a child has good vocal ability, they needed to be motivated to participate in the choir. Yaffa, the homeroom teacher at Tmarim said, “Children who love music... will want to sing,” and Dana echoed this response, “If they didn’t love it, it wouldn’t happen.”
A Social Role
The participants viewed the interactions in the choir as a learning environment for social practice. Iren said, “It’s interaction between the children,” and Dorit, the inclusion coordinator at Tmarim noted that the children, “…get to know other children from other classes...”
The choir served as a membership group for the children singing, as well as a place for individuals to express themselves. Aluma, the principal at Zamir said,
“The topic of the individual within a group and the individual as an individual... when you are in a group, that gives you strength.” Inbal, Noy’s mother, stated something similar, “The strength of the group is more powerful than I am.” The individual in the choir sought balance between his or her individual needs and the group needs. Yankele said, “To work as a group, although everyone shines with something different...”. Inbal said, “To listen to where the other person is... work in the same team, and not try to be better than him...”
An Educational Role
Choral singing enabled practicing and acquiring knowledge. Aluma stated, “In this way they are given all the skills they need – including cognitive skills.” Yoheved also said something similar, “Mathematical thinking includes... rhythm, understanding quantities...”
The participants noted that lyrics helped to enrich the language of the children with autism, and rhyming helped them remember the words. Iren, a homeroom teacher at Zamir stated, “….and enrich the child with language he understands so little... at least it’s some kind of window... to another skill, and to let it...be expressed” Shanina, Coral’s mother noted, “Because it rhymes and I know I have to complete the sentence, it’s easier.”.
During rehearsals, the children practiced the choir’s songs so as to give their best performance. Shir said, “The rehearsals help us perform better.” Some of the children with autism practiced the songs without having any intention of eventually performing. Aluma noted this, “It seems there is something inside them motivating them... the result is less important for them...” However, some of the children in the choir practiced the songs so as to perform. She also said, “For some of the children the result is very important... the exposure... the audience...the applause... and the ‘well done!’ – is significant for them.”
The children received feedback on their singing after the performance, giving them encouragement to work for the next one. Yaffa, the homeroom teacher at Tmarim said, “In the end there is also... a farewell, and I see it as summarizing a process... it is a high that delights me... and gives me strength to keep going.” Performances served as a tool for teachers to assess the abilities of the children with autism to sing and perform in a group. Amalia, the homeroom teacher at Zamir noted, “It’s very important, particularly in a school like ours [Zamir], where the results are not precise...even the ability to have a choir and coordinate it so that it will be able to perform… I see as an amazing result.” The performance pushed the choir forward to a new high each time. Dorit, the inclusion coordinator at Tmarim said, “Every time you have one peak and another...” Nurit, Shir’s mother (one of the students from Tmarim) said, “The performance has...some peak of pressure, of pulling yourself together, concentration, excitement.” Therefore, the educational role of the choir includes academic aspects, musical learning, and personal development.
A Cultural Role
The participants also described the choir’s role from a cultural angle. The choir appeared in school and outside events for both schools. The principal at Tmarim, Simha said, “It has a cultural role in school life. In essence, the choir is for ceremonies within the school.” Amalia noted, “Also to go outside... and perform, is really our voice outside.”
The choir was also an example of producing one’s own culture, as opposed to purchasing it. It also let the children encounter Israeli heritage. Simha said, “It educates towards a culture of doing things yourself, rather than of consumption...” and Yael, the homeroom teacher at Tmarim noted, “We are raising the banner of our heritage – they learn it through music...”
An Emotional Role
Those participating in the study viewed the choir as enabling intensification of abilities and improving self-image. The children compared themselves to others and saw their own strengths. When referring to one fo the students, Aluma said “...This place...empowers him...a place to strengthen self-image...that he’s very good at math, but I’m good at this.”
The participants also noted that singing improved the children’s moods. “Music has a calming factor...” said Yaffa, the homeroom teacher at Tmarim. “I feel...it’s fun to sing” said Noy, one of the choir members “They enjoy it...the children come away a few levels happier... than when they came” said Yankele the teaching assistant at Zamir. Singing in a choir served as a channel for children who speak little to express themselves. Yaffa, a homeroom teacher at Tmarim said, “It’s a way to express yourself...children...who speak less...what they want to say...singing is something that bursts out of them.”
The Role of Inclusion
The choir was unique in that inclusion of children with autism and interacting with them is one of the motivating factors for choir membership.
The principal at Zamir, Aluma stated, “It gives them a place to feel...they are significant, that we can’t do it without them...” and Inbal, Noy’s mother noted, “This aspect of uniqueness... I belong to a special group...” The children and staff who sang in the choir developed positive, caring values. Shir, one of the girls who sang in the choir said, “I include better” while, Zamir’s principal, Aluma stated, ““It’s a values-based idea for me, not just social and learning.” Inclusion was demonstrated in the integration of voices in the choir. Yankele, one of the teaching assistants at Zamir said, “The inclusion is really while singing...” and the inclusion coordinator at the same schoolYoheved said, “And their voices merge...” When inclusion is at its best, it is hard to tell which child is from Zamir and which from Tmarim:
One of the homeroom teachers at Zamir, Amalia said, “And someone...who doesn’t know the children, won’t be able to tell which child is from Zamir and which from Tmarim.” Dana, a teaching assistant, also from Zamir said, “homeroom teacher at Zamir) also from Zamir said, t be able to tell which child
The study also identified difficulties and challenges faced by those involved in the choir. These are divided into two sections, “It’s hard to cope with” and children’s developmental challenges.
"It’s Hard to Cope With"
The interviews showed the inclusion coordinators to be the thread connecting the two schools, but the choir was not a priority due to their many responsibilities and the difficulty in finding the time to meet and discuss the choir. There was also limited motivation for cooperation between the two groups of teachers – those from the mainstream and special schools – regarding the choir. The principal at Zamir, Aluma, pointed out, “We have the inclusion coordinators who don’t touch it.” Dorit, the inclusion coordinator at Tmarim also voiced, “Look, in some ways the choir doesn’t leave them a choice, they [the teachers] need to come.” There was also a systematic difficulty in arranging rehearsals and performances.
Dorit noted, “Suddenly the choir conference was scheduled for the first day of the [Jewish] month... the schedule here... it’s really complicated.” Aluma noted, “Without a doubt the choir... from an organizational point of view... needs lots of resources – it needs a conductor... a suitable venue... manpower... hours... the moment the choir begins to be...built-in to the schedule... It starts to be something for the schedule... It’s hard to cope with...”Private voice training lessons were also difficult to schedule as Ella, a mother of two of the children noted, “I don’t know why they stopped it... they (the “peer includers”) don’t come to take him any more...something to do with their schedule...” Zamir School does not hold performances any longer because of technical and legal difficulties, and this suggested that the choir was not valued by others. Aluma stated, “It doesn’t have an internal effect; because it’s as if we aren’t giving it space...our physical space doesn’t let us show...what we are doing here...”
In addition, the schools’ interpretation of legal restrictions regarding special education limited the choir’s exposure. Yoheved, the inclusion coordinator from Zamir noted, “If children [from special education] are included, it is prohibited to show faces.” Aluma also voiced this frustration, “When people come here, then show them the children doing things...we can’t, and then to put it on our website – we aren’t allowed to...”
Children’s developmental differences. The interview participants described the inclusive choir as fighting for its place against parallel activities. Yoheved mentioned,
“We need to decide...what’s more important.” The choir rehearsals were held at the same time as lessons or important activities for the children from Tmarim, and they found themselves forced to choose between the activities. Dorit, the inclusion coordinator at Tmarim said, “...She had to organize a game of dodge ball, which she adores... so... she didn’t come.” One of the homeroom teachers at Tmarim echoed this, “If it clashes with some activity... they don’t want to miss it.” One of the girls participating in the study reported being tired during the late hours when choir rehearsals were held. One of the girls in the choir found this to be true. Noy said, “At the end of the day, it’s harder. And we’re already exhausted.” Opportunities for solos also caused difficulties. Shir’s mother Nurit noted, “Also, if she isn’t given a solo, it’s hard for her.”
A further challenge was that the children from Tmarim needed to simultaneously sing and include.Ella found this to be a challenge for her children Moshe and Yisraela, “Here you are, great, you need to include them...and why are they coming to the choir now and bothering us...?”
The behavior of children from Zamir also bothered children from Tmarim. “The child wets himself...it isn’t easy for the child from Tmarim to cope with...or if a child suddenly goes bananas...” noted Dorit, the inclusion coordinator at Tmarim. The difficulties for the child from Zamir to accept rules and delay satisfaction were expressed during the rehearsals. Yoheved said, “ Like anything new... it raised some opposition.” Aluma noted something similar, “They want to lead all the time...to dictate the pace...They aren’t willing to accept authority from anyone.” Finally, the children from Zamir singing in the choir span a broad age range, and a teacher from Zamir found this inappropriate. Iren said, “The children are already older, of junior high school age already.”
The findings suggest that the inclusive choir provided six roles alongside several challenges related to children participating in the choir and its partners.
The discussion will debate the advantages of the inclusive choir, as expressed in the six major roles that seemingly testify to its standing in the school, alongside the challenges it faced and its status.
The Choir’s Roles in the Tmarim and Zamir Schools
A Musical Role
The choir’s musical role is to enable every child – irrespective of his or her disabilities – to create music and sing from a place of ability and empowerment. The understanding of this role is commensurate with the claim of Smith (2006) that every child can sing, and that of the study participants who described their amazement from the expression of the musical abilities of the children with autism.
A Social Role
The findings show that the choir enabled the formation of new friendships among children of different ages and grades, and this theory is reinforced by the literature (Cohen, 2012; Shapira, 2003).
The study participants noted that the inclusive choir provides the child with autism with a tool to form a relationship with his or her peer using song lyrics, and thereby expressing his or her need for a relationship with him or her. Koegel et al. (2012) noted that during the shared activity, the child with autism initiates verbal and focused communication, sometimes at a similar level to that initiated by their mainstream peers participating in the activity. The study by Branigan and Barker (2015) found that a choir that includes a population with special needs develops skills such as social interaction and communication among its participants. In light of the aforementioned, it can be presumed that communication was indeed created during the choir’s activity, between the children from Zamir and the children from Tmarim. A child with autism can form a significant relationship with his or her peer, and sometimes even initiate it.
The issue of children from Tmarim leaving the choir also emerged from the findings. One of the reasons for them leaving is the individual’s need for visibility within the group, as against the group’s need to work as a group. A study examining a similar issue reported a comparable difficulty (Cohen, 2012). Presumably, the child must find the balance between these two needs. The findings show that when dissonance is too great, and children are not provided with solutions to individual needs, they will probably leave the choir. Perhaps the connection between the child from Tmarim and the child from Zamir is significant enough to motivate them to remain in the choir.
An Educational Role
Participants believed that singing was a means for advancing language for children with autism. This finding supports Lim’s study (2010) that examined the influence of practice of singing on language development for children with autism at various levels of functioning. He concluded that musical practice significantly contributed to language development for children with autism in general, particularly for those with a low level of functioning. Singing in an inclusive choir can also create opportunities for interdisciplinary cooperation for the two groups of teachers in the mainstream and special schools.
The children’s choir practised singing for weeks, culminating in a performance. The literature notes that the function of a choir is to rehearse and perform (Mathias & Hahlen, 2011). In addition, from the start, a choir is in the category of stage arts (Gadberry, 2010). Participants noted that a performance meets the need of the children in the choir to perform and be seen. Bryan (2005) supported the finding that many children love to perform. The participants described the children’s great excitement before, during, and after the performance. Preperformance excitement is natural and human (Robertson & Eisensmith, 2010).
According to the participants from the Zamir teaching staff, some of the children with autism did not demonstrate external signs, such as excitement, before a performance. We can understand from what they said that emotional expression for a child with autism is positive, and when this is not observed, it would seem that the performance has no significance. Many resources are invested in taking children with autism to a performance, and the question arises whether the performance gives something to these children, and if it is worthwhile to invest so much effort. The research literature shows it is necessary to invest the system’s greatest efforts for children to succeed in their areas of strength (Adler, 2008; Israel Ministry of Education, 2000). Efforts in such areas allow the children to experience themselves positively and improve their self-image (Wills, 2011). Perhaps it is precisely a lack of negative emotion prior to a performance that testifies to the performance being a positive experience for them.
A study examining the meaning of facial expressions for people on the autism spectrum, found it easier to identify someone with autism experiencing something negative than something positive (Stel, Van den Heuvel, & Smeets, 2008). If the attitude of the child with autism to the performance is positive, it will be difficult to identify this and note it as a positive factor. In addition, studies found that the way a person with autism expresses feelings is different to that of a “typical” person, and cannot be identified by facial expressions. Perhaps the choir’s performance has unique significance for the development of children with autism, even though it cannot be assumed from facial expressions.
The study examining the significance of the performance for the child with autism, with peer mediation, discovered there is an improvement in the child’s functioning (Corbett et al., 2011). We can assume from this that the performance is of significance to the child with autism who likes to sing, and it is important to allow him to do so, even if there is no outward positive expression. It is important that the choir’s conductor and accompanying staff act with attentiveness and sensitivity to negative expressions, should they occur.
A performance, according to one of the interview participants, is a kind of summit measuring the musical progress of the child with autism. A study that examines ways to measure the success of the child with autism noted the need for logic, focusing on targets, and assessing effectiveness, so as to measure progress (Bellini, Henry, & Pratt, 2011).It is difficult to accurately measure the progress of such a child. However, a performance allows us to not only see the progress in the musical dimension, but also in the communicative, social, and behavioral spheres at different points of time. Measuring the progress of a child with autism in the inclusive choir is possibly expressed in the ability to stand and perform for an audience, together with peers from the typical school.
The findings show that feedback during and after the performance gave the children the strength to sing and practice. Schatt (2011) found that motivation for long-term involvement in music depends more on strength from an internal, rather than external, source. The audience’s admiration for the performer is considered external and significant, but only for a short time. Perhaps the connection between children from Tmarim and children from Zamir is an internal source of strength and motivation for both.
The findings show that each performance advances to a new high. A study examining motivation for music practice found a performance is a means for learning, allowing the student to view it as a goal (Nielsen, 2008). The study findings showed exposure to an audience enables children to feel pride and a sense of belonging. Lautersztein-Pitlik (2010) also described how children feel pride and a sense of belonging while performing. One of the important goals in creating a sense of pride and belonging for the children of the inclusive choir is developing awareness of those who are different and their contribution to the community, among the children. A supportive community enables expression of abilities and strengths (Carruthers & Hood, 2005; Wills, 2011). This choir encouraged children’s strengths in singing and allowed for the development of social values while the children were in a position of positive skills and not deficits. In addition, the empathy of the child from Tmarim who sang in the choir are also described regarding the values-based aspect. In a study examining the significance of music in schools, it was argued that children who sing could affect social change with their music-making (McCarthy, 2013). One of the roles of the children’s choir is developing values (Lautersztein-Pitlik, 1999; Shapira, 2003).
We hope that this will have a positive influence in the future, and that they will later participate, in adulthood, in creating a healthier society – a society that accepts those who are different as part of the whole, and values the contribution of one person is no less important than that of another. The creation of a healthier society through singing together was also noted in an Australian study (Branigan & Barker, 2015).
A Cultural Role
The findings show the choir plays a cultural role in the school, expressed in a meeting with Israeli heritage and tradition – an aspect supported by Lautersztein-Pitlik (2010) and Amiran-Pougatchov (1976). The cultural role was also expressed in performances at the Tmarim School as part of its lifestyle and enrichment of cultural life. McCoy (2012) added that a choir is the school’s musical ambassador. A teacher at the Zamir School noted the choir is the school’s voice. We can assume that when the inclusive choir participates at most of the school events both at and outside Tmarim, this shows it fills a cultural need, and, that it meets accepted standards.
The choir is also an example of producing one’s own culture, as opposed to consuming culture. We can understand from this that the choir gave space to the children who sing, where they can do things, create, and contribute to the school’s cultural activity. People with special needs are also generating a change in societal attitudes towards them by producing music (Ansdell, 2002; Elefant, 2010). In his study discussing the place of music in schools, Amrein-Beardsley (2009) discovered that self-produced culture increases the energy of those involved in it. The inclusive choir added a unique nuance to producing one’s own culture for both schools, and it can generate social change in the participating community, alongside adding to the energy of the children who sing, irrespective of their disabilities
An Emotional Role
The research findings showed the children’s emotional side was also expressed in the choir. Other studies have shown that choir members feel valued, and their self-image is strengthened (Cohen, 2012; Wills, 2011).
Song provides a place for expression, even for less verbal children. The participants added that, although the lyrics are predetermined, they allowed the children to express their feelings. This finding is supported by other studies discussing song as a means of emotional expression (Harper et al., 2008; Ofsted, 2009; Wills, 2011). The song can serve as a bridge for emotional expression for all children in general, and for children with autism in particular through choice of songs relevant to their own world. Perhaps finding individually relevant songs, and practicing these in the inclusive choir, will serve as an incentive for greater emotional expression.
This study also found that song reduced anxiety and pressure, and caused a sense of joy and calmness. Singing as a factor in emotional well-being is also noted in the literature (Branigan & Barker, 2015; Cohen, 2012; Stonehouse, 2013; Wills, 2011). Additionally, one of the characteristics of children with autism is anxiety, and inclusive choir rehearsals enabled them to reach a relaxing place. Reducing anxiety through song can enable the child with autism to be available for practicing social and communicative skills and allow him or her to advance. Likewise, reducing anxiety can also enable the including child to be more available for mediating the child with autism.
The Role of Inclusion
The participants note that inclusion is one of the motivating factors for the children from Tmarim to be in the choir, aside from the singing itself. A study examining children’s motivation to include, argued that when inclusion is carried out in ways attractive to the children, there will be motivation (Israel Ministry of Education, 2008). To make the inclusive choir attractive, it is important that it should be seen and heard at events within and outside the school. Homeroom teachers have the ability and power to enable children’s participation by offering them practical support and praise. Good interpersonal communication between the choir’s conductor and the homeroom teachers can lead to such a process.
One of the most prominent research findings is that during the singing someone from the outside did not notice which child was from Tmarim and which from Zamir. The reason, it would seem, is that some of the children with autism are high-level, and sometimes even above average, abilities in various fields, such as music and memory (Wallace, 2008). It can be inferred that children in the inclusive choir may have equal singing ability, and sometimes it is actually the child with autism who makes a significant musical contribution to the including child’s experience. Likewise, Ansdell (2002) suggested that a performance allows a choir to present the healthy side and wellbeing of all the children who are singing.
The Place of the Inclusive Choir in both Schools
The roles of the choir that emerged from the findings, can testify to its positive standing in both schools. Its positive status is also expressed in the fact that, in spite of difficulties, both partner schools desire the choir. The homeroom teacher at Tmarim, Yael said “I hope it continues and grows, and more and more children join the choir...” The Tmarim principal, Simha, dreams of incorporating residents from the local community, who love singing, into the choir: “I’d like to see the choir more community-centered... I’d like to see grandparents and parents, that it’s their passion.”
Talias (2011) explained that this would be dependent on the school developing partnerships with wider communities. There is a desire to market it outside. “I’m talking about recordings...making...a video of the process...publicizing it...doing something” said the mother of one of the students from Tmarim, Shir. The staff was proud of the choir when it was invited to perform outside the school. “I think it’s a very great...honor...that they [another school] asked [them to perform there], because they were so impressed by them” noted Dorit, the inclusion coordinator at Tmarim. More rehearsals were needed. “To add more...hours of rehearsals...because once a week is very little...for children whose strengths lie in these fields...” said Yael. This reinforced what was written in the Ministry of Education’s music curriculum for elementary schools (Israel Ministry of Education, 2011b), that the use of school choirs as a performing body should be expanded and intensified. Perhaps the intention was to enable the choir to meet more frequently and extend the session time, develop the performance field, and provide the time and place for children to express their abilities.
A suggestion was made for turning the journey of the choir towards a summit day. A Summit Day in Israel is a day of celebration at the end of an educational process when learners reach the pinnacle of a specific subject in a school (Israel Ministry of Education, 2009). Dorit stated, “A summit day...when we reach the place...it’s respectable...it will be a summit day worth coming to.”Gilad-Efron (2008) described the conference as one of the most significant events for the choir. The idea was raised for a performance to be shown to the parents by Nurit: “Invite them [the parents] to a performance.” In general, there was a wish to see the choir perform more. Dorit said she “ would like it on the first day of the [Jewish] month,” and Yael, the homeroom teacher at Tmarim said, “And the choir should have a place...be felt more...”
The contribution of the choir’s activity to the children’s experiences is seemingly significant enough that cooperation with the therapeutic staff at Zamir can be considered. Ella, the mother of Moshe from Zamir and Yisraela from Tmarim noted, “I would bring the speech therapist to come with him to the lesson, and do something together, afterwards she’d take him...to her and carry on.”
Salvador (2013) also recommended cooperative ventures between choir conductors and the special education staff. Perhaps, in light of the current study, it is possible to also incorporate the educational staff from the mainstream school in the cooperative venture. Ideas for cooperation also included an idea to update the parents regarding the choir’s activities, with a monthly email. Ella also said, “Maybe...you can send...a monthly... email.”
The parents of the children who sing are an important part of the circle surrounding the child from an educational aspect, and including them can empower the child and arouse parental pride. Stonehouse’s study (2013) also supported this argument.
Despite its uniqueness, Tmarim School does not put the inclusive choir on a pedestal, and it is considered on a level with other activities and initiatives. “It’s a very practical attitude...like the recorder groups...they don’t put it on a pedestal, they don’t say, ‘Wow, inclusion! ...Don’t touch,’” stated Simha, the principal at Tmarim.
A study about inclusion in schools reinforces this with the argument that the staff’s daily exposure to inclusion turns the inclusion activity into a lesson like any other (Israel Ministry of Education, 2008). We can understand this statement positively, coming from a place of ability and strength like the other school activities, and inclusion is only a means that empowers singing ability that is the essence of the activity.
Difficulties Arising from Implementation of Inclusion for the Choir
The choir’s challenges are expressed in three aspects – systematic difficulties, the viewpoint of a child from Tmarim, and that of a child from Zamir.
Systematic difficulties. Despite the choir’s many advantages, there were a great many difficulties in integrating it in the curricula of both schools. In addition, the children from both schools who sang in the choir experience difficulties, mainly connected with the inclusion. It emerged from the interviews that the inclusive choir is not a priority of the inclusion coordinators, seemingly because of poor motivation for cooperative efforts between the staff of the two schools regarding everything connected with the choir. According to a study on inclusion (Israel Ministry of Education, 2008), cooperation is one of the four principles for inclusion success, with the choir’s growth depending on it. Elefant (2010) also claimed in her study that the inclusion process could only contribute to social change in the local community if those involved jointly aspire to the same goal. Another possible reason for the difficulty is the lack of clarity regarding where the choir belongs in regard to resources. In a study examining factors leading to a school choir’s success, it was found that mutual cooperation among educational staff or its lack, can be a growth or hindering factor for the choir (Barresi, 2000).
Another difficulty emerging from the findings is coordinating choir rehearsals and performances. Tmarim School has other activities that sometimes clash with choir rehearsal or performance times. Consistency and practice are very important so the children will feel confident during the performance. If children do not attend rehearsals on a consistent basis, even if it is not their fault, their self-confidence can suffer, even leading to leaving the choir. Bell’s (2002) study on motivation in a choir found that the greater the self-confidence level in the choir, the greater the wish to continue singing in it, although the opposite is sometimes also true! Parker (2011) related that irregular choir rehearsals caused a lack of balance in the choir, and reduced motivation and enjoyment from singing in it. The findings also indicated the wish to make private voice training lessons available to the Tmarim School children. The intimate meeting can also enable children from Tmarim to practice more effective mediation, and support children from Zamir to participate – a finding supported by Klein and Yablon (2008).
The study found that performances were not held at the Zamir School for practical reasons, such as the lack of space, and legal restrictions on publicity. However, the media, portray children with special needs in fundraising campaigns, without legal difficulty. The misunderstanding seemed to arise from a circular (Israel Ministry of Education, 2003); however, the same circular allows photographs if parents consent, and there is also guidance in the absence of said consent (Israel Ministry of Education, 2012). Even according to the Ministry’s own material, publicity is possible if ethical guidelines are followed.
Difficulties experienced by the Tmarim children in the choir. The Tmarim children sometimes faced a dilemma whether to choose the choir or another activity especially when there was a competition for solos, and when simultaneously “including” and singing was too challenging. Heyning (2010) found that incorporating two simultaneous tasks develops listening, thinking, and performance skills. Presumably, balance between the choir’s tasks and the children’s needs in accordance with their ages, could turn frustration into a challenge.
A further challenge was the not always pleasant experiences of the children from Tmarim – a finding is in line with other studies (Van Weelden, 2001; Vitany & Reiter, 2006). Processing these experiences demands more time. In addition, rehearsal times at the end of the day, highlighted by some children, make it difficult for all the children to concentrate on the tasks required by the choir (Amiran-Pougatchov, 1976). We can, therefore, understand that rehearsals late in the day demand the children summon up their energy when those energies are at a low, and alternative timetabling would be beneficial.
Difficulties for children with autism when singing in the choir. The difficulties of the child with autism participating in the choir were also included in our findings. As discussed in the literature review, children with autism may experience anxiety or show challenging behavior. The choir may have contributed to more positive experiences.
The finding that the age range of the choir may be problematic seems related to the issue of age-appropriate behaviour and experiences - older children with autism might copy the behavior of younger children. The literature noted the choice of repertoire must suit the choir’s entire participating population (Broeker, 2000). The choice of suitable songs for the choir takes into account suitable content, skill level, and vocal ability, demands of the lyrics, song length and structure, the ability to sing in harmony, and pedagogical aspects. It can be assumed that if adaptations are made in line with the choir population, a broad age range will not be a problem.
Conclusions and Recommendations
This descriptive study demonstrated six major roles (musical, social, educational, cultural, emotional, and inclusive) and challenges of this inclusive music making opportunity. The activity of the inclusive choir can change social attitudes towards participants who are different. The choir offers an approach that promotes communication and wellbeing for all the children who sing in it, particular those with autism. Its success is dependent on the positive attitude of the administration, cooperation between the teachers from both schools, and sensitivity on the part of the choir’s conductor. The story of the choir shows that peer mediation has potential to support the development of children with autism, and it is recommended that such mediation be also extended to individual and therapeutic sessions. Singing may help to reduce challenging behavior, and we infer benefits from introducing singing into the classroom at various times throughout the day. We recommend that the choice of the song repertoire should be age-appropriate, irrespective of the children’s limitations. In addition, it is important to hold performances both within and outside the school as a tool to change social attitudes, alongside attentiveness and sensitivity for the needs of the children singing in the inclusive choir.
We recommend strengthening the connection between the members of staff in both schools, led by the school principals, for the best possible inclusive practices, alongside promoting the choir as an attractive activity for the children of both schools. The choir conductor’s professional development should include further study of special education.
The story of this choir shows the potential of peer mediation and we recommend strengthening and enhancing this. We recommend further research comparing the choir model with other inclusive activities, with the goal of identifying the common features of successful inclusive activities. We also propose further research into peer mediation strategies and their effectiveness in supporting children with autism to succeed in the choir.
The unique contribution of this study is its presentation of a holistic approach and the potential of an inclusive choir as a powerful tool for changing attitudes towards difference.
Limitations of the Study
While this study identifies positive benefits for our schools, generalizations cannot be derived from this small-scale study, beyond the recommendations for our future practice and for future research. Furthermore, no similar studies were found in the literature, and so no comparison could be made with other groups. Finally, it is important to note that the current study examined a single model of a choir incorporating children with autism, at a moderate level of functioning and cannot be generalized to other populations. There was no observation of the children with autism, and they were not interviewed due to the difficulty in communication. No use was made of triangulation to confirm our results, and we recommend that a future study incorporate additional methods, such as observations and a research diary.
The current study enabled a glimpse into the world of inclusive choral singing for children with autism and others. It highlighted the challenges, difficulties, achievements, frustrations, pleasure, and satisfaction that one inclusive choir gave its members, and seeks to suggest, expand, and explore this issue regarding additional choirs and other aspects linked to singing and choirs in particular, and inclusion of children with autism in school activities in general.
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