School Therapies & The Music Strategy Designer

Patrick Cerria
7 min readApr 3, 2024


I have posted these statistics multiple times and will continue to do so until their magnitude, and how they’re affecting education, is truly acknowledged. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 15% of American students ages 3–21 receive special education services in school. That’s 7.3 million students nationwide. In addition, the CDC reports the following data related to American children’s mental health diagnoses ages 2–17:

  • 9.8% have an ADHD diagnosis (approximately 6.0 million)
  • 9.4% have anxiety (approximately 5.8 million)
  • 8.9% have a behavioral classification (approximately 5.5 million)
  • 4.4% have depression (approximately 2.7 million)

Also important to note: the above CDC data is PRE-pandemic.

While many topics within the greater education discussion deal with what we teach our children, my concern is with how. As in how are we supposed to teach our kids anything when they’re arriving at school with issues affecting everything from physical and cognitive development; communication; their mental health and well being; and how they socially interact with one another? Take AI as an example. This is a massive subject on everyone’s table, especially our kid’s. No one can say how it’s going to impact the future, how ever we know that our kids have to not only learn about, but work with and navigate it. But how are we to attempt a subject of such magnitude when, literally, millions of students come to school every day with a classification or diagnosis that directly impacts their learning?

In another essay I wrote about how we can (and should) use music and music educators in much more dynamic and creative ways in school. Music is a severely underused resource in helping to support and serve the developmentally diverse students we now teach. We can (and should) use music to help with everything from speech therapy to assisting with self-regulation protocols. Here, I am going to make a case for how music (and music educators) can be used to enhance school provided occupational therapy (OT) which will help to prepare our kids to learn about themselves and then be ready to learn the complex subjects we must now teach them.

Over the course of the last twenty years, I have been blessed to work with many occupational therapists (OT’s). I spent three years working up close with a team of OT’s, speech and physical therapists whose work was focused on children with cerebral palsy as well as children on the Autism spectrum. Together, we ran numerous programming that (for me) wasn’t just rewarding work, but also educational. It’s through this experience and work that I’ve seen how music and OT work extremely well together. In fact, they have lots in common.

The “occupational” in OT is because many of the protocols are about using activities and movements that occupy your day: brushing teeth, getting dressed, and using your balance. This is why OT in school could (and does) consist of working on handwriting, good core strength and balance (more on that later) and even socialization. In essence, OT can help with anything that affects our sensory and other systems, and these systems directly impact how we learn.

In her brilliant book The Music Effect: Music Physiology and Clinical Applications Dorita S. Berger says that the human body is a “controlled system” consisting of atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs and other systems (nervous, sensory). She then goes on to show how music, too, is an organized system and how the components of the musical system match up with the human: individual pitches/notes (atoms); melodic soundscapes (molecules); phrasing and rhythmic units (functional cells); timbre, sound qualities, and dynamics (tissues); combinations of notes, rhythms, phrases, and dynamics (organs); and keys, form, movements, musical styles, variations (other systems). The music system doesn’t just inspire physical movements, but its different components also elicit emotional and social responses. It is all encompassing and, therefore, I believe the perfect thing to enhance and support in-school OT.

The movements that our bodies engage in on a daily basis are not just informed by physical and sensory processing. They are equally or more so informed by our emotions. You don’t just walk through the grocery store picking items off the shelf. Are you in a hurry? Are you extra focused? Maybe you have lots of time and can be nonchalant. Whatever it is, the mindset you find yourself in, and the emotions attached to it, will influence, or dictate, your movements. The guy who just blew past you in the cereal aisle is probably running late. The woman strolling down the aisle in a relaxed stride with an easy smile on her face is clearly not in any hurry at all. Her physical movements, and facial expression, are the complete opposite of the guy who just blew past you. Now apply this idea to students in school.

I like to say that students come to school carrying more than books and backpacks. They carry emotions and experiences that are not only going to affect how they move and socialize, but how and what they learn. When you extend that idea to a student who is receiving school provided therapy, it’s now more complex. This is just one thing that makes the work of modern day teachers and school therapists that much more intricate— and this is why music can/should be used to enhance and support school provided services.

Imagine you’re a school OT and are having trouble working with a particular student who has sensory processing delays. As a result of these delays, her handwriting is affected. She is in fourth grade, but her writing level is somewhere between kindergarten and first grade. She’s getting very frustrated with her lack of progress and, in addition to her sensory issues, is subsequently displaying in-class behaviors that are disruptive. You (the school OT) have hit a wall and are wondering what you can do.

Now imagine there’s some good news: you work in a school district that — in addition to band, chorus, orchestra and general music teachers — also employs a Music Strategy Designer. The “MSD” is a resource for music based collaboration, new ideas, and support with this student. You call the MSD down to your office to sit together and craft a new protocol to help this student. Based on the information you provide, the MSD creates a strategy where the student is going to move her arm rhythmically to music he plays on the piano. He’s also going to use a “shorter” music/rhythm piece to inspire wrist and finger movements. He tells you that he’s going to have the student do both movements, and then switch between the two. Based on what he plays on the piano so she will not only be reacting physically to the music, but also emotionally. The arm movement music is “bigger” and grander. The wrist/finger movement music is shorter and a bit silly. Before the arm/hand/wrist movement games though, the MSD also crafts a few exercises that involve the student moving her whole body to music. These serve as a way for the student to awaken her physical body and her inner feelings as well. The music system is serving the human system. By observing the MSD’s protocols, and how the student responds, you are able to come up with other OT exercises. As the weeks go by, you begin to have breakthroughs and the student’s learning as well as in-class behavior begins to improve.

When you read the statistics I opened this essay up with, you would’ve hopefully realized how these are affecting education. The number of kids coming into school with varying developmental and mental health diagnoses is (literally) in the millions. These diagnoses have a direct impact on how and what kids learn, yet, there seems to be a disconnect regarding how vital school services are to the overall health and well being (both physically and academically) of our kids. We also need to make these services more creative.

I’m sure the concept of a “Music Strategy Designer” sounds a little out there — and it does so because it is taking the existing idea of what music is “supposed to be” in school and expanding and reimagining it. But I believe this can (and should) serve as the first step in reimagining education. Having an MSD collaborating and working with therapists and teachers will inspire them to begin to look at their own work in reimagined and expanded ways, and we need to begin to approach education this way. The world is changing in extraordinary ways (technologically, environmentally, politically, socially, economically) and these changes are going to require creative and dynamic young minds. But in order to educate all of our children properly, we have to make them aware of who they are and open them up to their fullest potential.

I recently had a parent contact me asking if I could give her son piano lessons. She explained how he’d been diagnosed with varying sensory based delays as well as some behavioral classifications. She also told me he’d been kicked out of other classes they’ve tried and went on to say that he loves music. The thing is, I hear — and have been hearing — this for most of my career. I’ve taught numerous children who struggle in school, but are above and beyond in either private music lessons or in my music classes. This is directly connected to the music system Dr. Berger speaks about in her book, and we have to have music educators in our schools who can tap into this.

I believe my responsibility and mission is to look at music from this perspective. Thinking of music like a system allows me to deconstruct, take it apart and consider how every aspect could be broken down, analyzed and thought of in the context of the human system. This then allows me to craft a music strategy that can enhance or support other therapies as well as student classifications, and appeal to the students on a level they can relate to and thrive off of. This will help the student’s teacher as well. Again, music is a resource that can benefit the whole of learning and support students and staff in a variety of ways.

One last thing: I know that some of my fellow music educators are reading this and thinking Great, so I have to go back to school and study to become a board certified music therapist…right? No. You don’t. In fact, music educators and musicians are given a lot of this knowledge in their training. The problem is, they’re not being taught to use it in this capacity. They (like everyone else) are taught to view the role of music in school solely in the context of band, chorus, orchestra, and general music. They now — in addition to those — need to be taught to see it from the perspective of a MSD.

This is the future of music in school.



Patrick Cerria

I’m a music teacher, husband, father, author, speaker who teaches disabled & at-risk students. I write about education, philosophy & the absurdity of life.