Startts - NSW Service for the treatment and rehabilitation of torture and trauma survivors  

Self Care for Teachers

> Rosemary Signorelli is a counselor and music therapist at STARTTS.

PART I: Safety, Stress Management, Containment and Self-regulation

Because music and movement are represented, in various ways, in all areas of the brain, music and movement activities can assist children who have experienced abuse or trauma to

• manage their stress responses

• release and express emotions

• connect with other children, teachers and family in positive ways.

• integrate physical, emotional, social and communication functions

• work through their memories or

• regulate behaviours resulting from their previous trauma.

Part I of this article is mainly on the safety stage of trauma recovery. Part II, in the next edition of the e-zine, will also look at music and movement activities in relation to refugee childrens’ other recovery, developmental and social needs.

The polyvagal system for survival and response to stress

Children, like adults, can react to stress in two main ways. We either react to stress, or perceived threats to our survival, by:

  • becoming over aroused, anxious tense or aggressive and ready to fight or run away (through sympathetic nervous system), or
  • by shutting down, tuning out or freezing (through the parasympathetic nervous system)

Refugee children at school, or in pre-school settings, may react in either of these ways to stress or traumatic memories, triggered by all kinds of sensory or situational stimuli that we may not recognise.

Like adults, a child needs to have a balance between these two systems, in order to be able to concentrate at school, remember things, participate in their developmental tasks, and relate successfully with other children and adults. The child who tends be react with a fight/flight response needs to be become more calm, while the child who tends to withdraw or tune out needs help to become more aroused and aware of his/her surroundings and activities.

Here are some ways we can use music to help a child to get this balance:

  • Singing can help to create a balance between hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal, because breathing in activates the sympathetic nervous system, and breathing out activates the parasympathetic system
  • The slower and more controlled breathing we use in singing can also help to slow down a racing heart rate, associated with the stress response, and the brain then gets the message that “everything is OK”.
  • Singing, playing and moving to music help the child to become aware of feelings in their body, or to focus attention on the music activity and hence let go of other distracting and distressing thoughts. It can be a kind of “mindfulness”.
  • Dancing can release the child’s excess energy if hyperaroused, or energise the hypo-aroused child, and provide containment in the form of circle formations, organized steps, and steady beat.
  • Fast instrument playing can increase arousal
  • Slow instrument playing can produce a more relaxed response – depending on the meaning of any words used or other possible triggers the music may provide.
  • Simple melodic or chordal patterns in the underlying harmony accompaniments can form a containing and holding pattern which can help to calm an agitated child
  • Opening and closing rituals in a music session can also serve as containing and holding strategies
  • Using gentle vestibular stimulation in the form of swaying or rocking, while singing, can be calming
  • The use of different scales, can also elicit varying responses:
    • We tend to react to major scales in a happier or energized way
    • We tend to sense sadness in minor scales – depending on the rhythms being used
    • A pentatonic scale, using notes I, II, II, V and VI of a major scale, can produce a very calming effect, when played or sung, especially when notes I and V are played as a containing harmony or drone underneath the singing or playing. Many folk tunes, lullabies and children’s songs are based on a pentatonic scale.

Music for reflection and emotional self-regulation

Sometimes a music therapist may use energetic and loud music activity with a child, to match their level of agitation, and then slowly change the tempo and volume to help the child move from the more agitated state to a calmer one. This can help the child to:

  • Modulate their feelings, responses and expressions
  • Get some of the emotional and muscular tension “out of their system” in a safe and appropriate way before they can be calm again
  • Know that their feelings have been “heard” and acknowledged. Songs may contain story lines or ideas that help the child to express specific emotions or dreams and values
  • Songwriting can be a way for a child to explore new narratives around their trauma experiences, nightmares, fears or hopes for the future.

In early childhood settings:

  • Stop and start songs, using the hand sign for “stop”, and the “you” sing for starting, also help very young children to gain self control, in a fun setting.
  • Singing instructions helps very young children to follow instructions cooperatively.
  • This can be particularly effective if using the simple soh, mi, lah melody (like in “Rain, rain, go away” tune)

Managing triggers that may occur with music and movement activities

Care needs to be taken, however, to observe reactions to triggers for traumatic memories, fear and anxiety, and ensure that the experience is not re-traumatising but serves the recovery process.

These triggers are highly individual and may include, among other things:

  • Specific instrument sounds, pitch, beat, rhythm, tempo or volume
  • Particular body movements or degrees of body tension
  • Ethnically or culturally specific genres, timbres
  • Associations with specific music or song words.

For example:

  • A ticking clock may remind a refugee of being imprisoned, or of bombs
  • Tapping sounds may remind a refugee of gun shots
  • Loud or high sounds or sirens may remind refugees of bomb raids, and
  • Very fast drumming may make a person feel they are being chased.

To minimise or manage musical triggers of stress responses:

  1. Where possible, try to find out about the children's trauma history so that possible triggers can be anticipated, avoided, or monitored
  2. Observe and check out the childrens’ responses. Ask them how they are feeling during or after doing a particular activity.
  3. Begin with safety strategies such as rituals and choice, and the opportunity to avoid a song or sound that acts like a trigger for them. Avoidance is the “safest” strategy in the short term.
  4. Non musical grounding strategies can be used, such as breath awareness, deep breathing, awareness of the feet being supported on the floor and body supported in the chair, and other mindfulness activities in the room in the “here and now”.
  5. Music improvisations can utilise the pentatonic scale and rhythmic and harmonic holding patterns, and vocal improvisation can reinforce the social connection and nervous system.
  6. Work in collaboration with the child’s counselor. The music therapist or counselor can explain and normalise the child’s experience, and can increase his or her awareness of their triggers and responses, so that they can make changes.
  7. At a later stage in recovery, a music therapist, in collaboration with the child’s counselor, may use gradual exposure to songs or other triggers may assist the child to tolerate these emotions.

Stay tuned for Part II which will look at how music and movement programs or activities can enhance children’s developmental, social and relational needs, in light of

  • The STARTTS bio-psychosocial model
  • Trauma recovery models (Judith Herman, Scheidlinger)
  • The ARC model (attachment, self-regulation and competence)
  • Developmental models for working with children (Bruce Perry, Stanley Greenspan)

If you have questions about this article you can contact Rosemary at

> Rosemary Signorelli

Rosemary is a counselor and music therapist at STARTTS. She also has extensive private practice experience with children and adults with special needs, and in early childhood music teaching and music therapy programs.

Music Therapy is the planned and creative use of music, facilitated by a registered music therapist, to attain and maintain health and well being. People of any age or ability may benefit from a music therapy program regardless of musical skill or background. The focus on meeting therapeutic aims distinguishes music therapy from musical entertainment or music education. The therapeutic process allows an individual’s abilities to be strengthened and new skills to be transferred to other areas of their life.

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