In Circle Time in Early Childhood, Cathy Knoll, a board-certified music therapist with over 35 years of clinical experience, examines the challenges of managing behavior in circle time groups of young children, and outlines six tried-and-true strategies for minimizing disruptive behaviors while maximizing the benefits of group music therapy. The symposium includes a 27-minute audio discussion as well as supporting text. The audio discussion covers these topics:

I. Formula for disaster in early childhood group music therapy.
II. What is the problem?
III. Why have group music therapy for young children?
IV. Six tried-and-true strategies for crowd control.
V. Trade peace for progress.

Click on the gray arrow below to listen to the audio discussion.


NOTE: The written materials below support the audio discussion for the January, 2009 AMTA.Pro Symposium. Scroll down to read (1) background information about behavior issues in early childhood music therapy groups, (2) a transcript of the audio discussion, and (3) a list of resources related to this topic.

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Background Information

“Early childhood” is a term generally referring to young children from birth through five years of age. Music therapists provide early childhood services in a variety of settings, including school districts, state residential schools, private schools, and state and community service agencies (Smith & Hairston, 1999). Music therapists also serve young children in music therapy clinics, in private practice, family homes, early intervention programs, day care, and preschool programs (Humpal, 2006) as well as in residential or hospital settings (Schwartz, 2006).

The music therapist has primary responsibility for managing behavior during group music therapy sessions in some early childhood settings, while in others, teachers or primary care providers deal with behavior issues. Whether the chief behavior monitor or not, the music therapist is obligated to design learning experiences and therapeutic strategies that maximize attention and participation while minimizing inappropriate or disruptive behaviors.

In an overview of general characteristics found in youngsters served by music therapists in early childhood and school environments, Snell (2006) lists twenty common behavioral characteristics that interfere with a student being able to participate appropriately in a music therapy group. Snell’s list (p. 23) includes:

  • short attention span
  • off-task behavior
  • poor self-organization
  • appears to not grasp physical and/or social boundaries
  • hyperactivity, fidgety, restless, in and out of seat
  • hypoactivity, appears limp, non-responsive
  • misunderstands directions, concretely interprets abstract concepts
  • inability to follow group directions/instructions
  • inattentive eye contact
  • inattentive or odd body posture
  • self-stimulatory or self-injurious behaviors
  • negative attention seeking
  • eager to please, over-dependence on praise
  • noncompliant, defiant, destructive
  • over-dependence on adult assistance
  • poor social skills, unable to positively interact or cooperate with peers
  • emotional swings, unpredictable behavior
  • anxious, irritable, withdrawn, detached from reality, immature behavior

This list of challenging behaviors can intimidate the most experienced music therapist. It seems impossible to address all these issues in a group setting. But a wealth of materials is available to help clinicians meet the challenge. Information about research journals, clinical practice journals, newsletters, books, fact sheets, and web-based information provided by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) and other sources is provided in the resource section at the end of this posting.

For example, Hughes, Rice, DeBedout, & Hightower (2002) compiled a list of music therapy strategies designed to “reduce behavior problems.” (pp. 367-368) The list includes strategies such as reviewing group rules and consequences, consistently enforcing rules in a firm and positive manner, planning for success by building on the student strengths, and modeling and prompting appropriate behavior and participation. The chapter includes similar lists of strategies addressing other group skills such as following instructions, participating in group activities, and staying on task. (pp. 366-368)

A recent AMTA publication, Early Childhood and School Age Educational Settings, (Humpal, 2006) includes numerous references to behavior management in early childhood groups. Humpal & Tweedle (2006) describe seven music therapy strategies designed to “get the attention of children and re-direct them away from undesirable behavior.” (p. 166) The strategies include capturing attention through music and music instruments, encouraging participation through musical play and use of peer assistants, and easing transition through non-verbal cues and prompts. Other group management tips compiled by a group of experienced music therapy clinicians are found on page 194 and on pages 204-05 in the Early Childhood and School Age Educational Settings monograph.


Hughes, J., Rice, B., DeBedout, J., & Hightower, L. (2002). Music therapy for learners in comprehensive public schools systems: Three district-wide models. In B. Wilson (Ed.), Models of music therapy interventions in school settings (pp. 319-368). Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association.

Humpal, M., & Colwell, C. (Eds.). (2006). Early childhood and school age educational settings: Using music to maximize learning. Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association.

Humpal, M., & Tweedle, R. (2006). Learning through play – A method for reaching young children. In M. Humpal & C. Colwell (Eds.), Early childhood and school age educational settings: Using music to maximize learning. (pp. 153-173). Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association.

Schwartz, E. (2006). Eligibility and Legal Aspects. In M. Humpal & C. Colwell (Eds.), Early childhood and school age educational settings: Using music to maximize learning (pp. 27-36). Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association.

Smith, D., & Hairston, M. (1999). Music therapy in school settings: Current practice. Journal of Music Therapy, 36(4), 274-292.

Snell, A. (2006). Definitions and characteristics of individuals served in early childhood and school age settings. In M. Humpal & C. Colwell (Eds.), Early childhood and school age educational settings: Using music to maximize learning (pp. 8-26). Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association.

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Transcript of Audio Discussion

Welcome to AMTA.Pro, a benefit exclusively for members of the American Music Therapy Association. This symposium, released in January, 2009, focuses on circle time in early childhood. We will discuss strategies for managing behaviors of young children in music therapy groups. My name is Cathy Knoll.

I. Formula for Disaster

When I jumped into my music therapy career in 1974, I was certain I could conquer the world. I was firmly convinced music therapy would make life wonderful for every person with a disability. As I walked down the hallway of a public school in Cleveland, Ohio toward my first music therapy session in an early childhood classroom, I was very confident my hours of planning and preparation would result in smiles on the faces of that group of sweet, cooperative children whom I had met during individual assessment sessions. I had composed a clever “Hello Song” to play on my finely tuned guitar, and I was carrying a bag of shiny new instruments, clever props, and intriguing books. As I opened the door of the classroom, I spied six cute little kids sitting on the floor around the classroom playing with toys. After saying hello to the teacher and aids, I put my carpet squares in a semi-circle around a teacher’s chair, then called the children to the group, playing my newly-composed “Hello Song” on the guitar.

It all seemed perfect, but things started going downhill immediately. Those cute little kids were not at all impressed with my clever “Hello Song.” In fact, they were much more interested in continuing to play with their toys than in coming to music therapy. When the teachers and aids finally pried the children loose from the toys and moved them toward the carpet squares, all six students started screaming or crying in spite of the soothing, calming music I began playing. The carpet squares were not effective in enticing them to stay in the group. Three of the kids kept running around the room, and the three remaining students rolled on their backs and shook their hands and feet in the air like bugs. Most of the youngsters sat up and took notice when I opened the bag of instruments. Two students accepted the instruments eagerly, and promptly began beating each other over the heads with those brightly colored, child-proof maracas. Another student grabbed an instrument and, with a gleam in his eye, threw it at the teacher’s desk, breaking a vase and spilling water and flowers and broken glass on the floor. The remaining three students promptly put the instruments in their mouths, christening my new purchases with germs and slobber. Not one of the youngsters appeared remotely interested in the Velcro activity folder, the neat pop-up book, or the clever action songs I introduced during the session. By the time I began singing the classic “Goodbye Song,” the teachers and I were all breathing a silent sigh of relief that the tortuous time was over. The students and I stood up at the end of the session, and I realized all of them were shorter than my knees. How could such small children wreak such havoc? As I walked out the door and looked back at the kids, not even one of them appeared cute or sweet. When I got to my car, I cried.

II. What is the problem?

So, what went wrong? I had carefully crafted a therapeutic plan based on the educational goals for each child. I was equipped with interesting, motivating activities and with clever, attention-grabbing music. Why didn’t the youngsters pay attention? Why were they more interested in eating the instruments than playing cool music? In retrospect, I offer four observations about music therapy in early childhood.

A. The “Magic of Music” is a myth. Clinical observations and music therapy research produce solid evidence that music does have an impact on our physical and emotional well-being and functioning, and that it can impact our lives and help shape behavior. But, singing a song with clever lyrics does not, in fact, automatically cause young children with special needs to suddenly become cooperative and attentive. Music therapists are not “pied pipers” who play music to help people overcome disabilities or make challenging behaviors disappear. Music therapists use music effectively as a tool in therapy, but there is more to it than simply introducing fun music activities.

B. Music therapy is not entertainment. Music therapists are not getting paid to wow clients with their musical gifts. Music therapy is not a concert, but, rather, the systematic application of music in a therapeutic setting to set the occasion for addressing pre-determined goals. The official definition of music therapy according to the American Music Therapy Association is as follows: “Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” (American Music Therapy Association definition, 2005). AMTA’s official response to the question “What do music therapists do?” is as follows: “Music therapists assess emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities, and cognitive skills through musical responses; design music sessions for individuals and groups based on client needs using music improvisation, receptive music listening, song writing, lyric discussion, music and imagery, music performance, and learning through music; participate in interdisciplinary treatment planning, ongoing evaluation, and follow up.” Notice that these definitions of music therapy and music therapy services do not mention clients sitting and listening while a talented music therapist entertains them.

C. Those cute little kids have issues that require systematic intervention. The youngsters are enrolled in early childhood services because of deficits in communication, motor skills, cognitive skills, social skills, daily living skills, and/or behavior issues. The purpose of music therapy is to utilize music as a tool to capture their attention, to address specific IEP goals, to reinforce appropriate responses, to help build on their strengths and compensate for deficit areas, and to give students opportunities to practice and generalize newly learned skills.

D. “Crowd Control” is an art. It is challenging for any pre-school child to pay attention to group activities. The challenge is magnified in a group of youngsters who have specific disabilities or issues that require special attention. Effective crowd control in music therapy takes more than clever songs, fun activities, and cool instruments.

III. Why Groups?

A. Wouldn’t individual “pull-out” therapy be easier? If crowd control is challenging, why don’t music therapists just walk individual students down the hall to a separate music therapy room, avoiding the multiple problems of group therapy? Why should a therapist put themselves in the position of dealing with the challenges of group therapy when it is so much easier to work with one student at a time?

B. Groups give a glimpse into the “real” world. Obviously, some students would benefit more from individual therapy than from group, but music therapy is a natural setting for youngsters to learn group skills critical to their functioning in society. Group music therapy gives the therapist, teachers, and families a clearer picture of the behavior and functioning of each student in a “real life” situation. For example, participation in group music making requires youngsters to stay in the area of the activity, focus to some extent on the leader, keep hands to self, share instruments, wait their turn, and learn to play and rest (or stop playing) at appropriate times. Music therapy sessions can be designed to help young students learn and practice social skills, appropriate behavior, and communication with peers – all of which are necessary for functioning in the real world.

C. Music therapy groups provide multiple learning opportunities in a natural setting. Music can capture the attention of young children, encourage participation in group activities, and give them interesting, creative opportunities to learn and practice multiple targeted skills as defined in their IEP (Individualized Education Plan.)

IV. Crowd Control

There are many different approaches to music therapy in early childhood, and each situation may call for different techniques and interventions. In this AMTA.Pro symposium, I am sharing six strategies that have proven effective in school-based early childhood classes and in private-pay early childhood groups in my music therapy practice over the past 35 years. Other therapists approach therapy differently, but these are offered as options to consider when working with circle time groups in early childhood.

Strategy #1: Set up for success. The therapist must plan in advance to make the transition from free time to circle time smooth for each student. It is also critical that the therapist establish specific boundaries for the students. I like using chairs since they provide a specific place in space, and since it gives young children a head start in learning to stay in their chair, a critical skill in first grade. I sit in a short chair rather than a tall “teacher’s chair” in order to be close to eye level with the students. That face-to-face contact helps build a personal relationship and helps youngsters focus on my words, facial expressions, and music.

Strategy #2: Get a fast start. Begin specifically and on time. Capture the attention of students right away and pace activities to maintain their attention. Understandably, young children get restless if they are waiting for us to set up chairs, prepare materials, and tune guitars. I like to immediately capture their attention with a standard opening song that reviews the group rules of being “good sitters and good listeners.”

Hey, Everybody
lyrics and music by Cathy Knoll

Hey, everybody, how are you doing today?
Hey, everybody, are you ready to play?
You have a smile on your face
(touch face)
and your hands on your knees
(pat knees)
You have a song in your heart
(hand over heart)
and you know how to say please
(sign language for “please”)
Good sitters, good listeners, we’re ready to win.
Hey, everybody, let the music begin.
(two claps)
Hey, everybody, let the music begin.
(two claps)
Hey, everybody……let the music begin. Yeah!

After singing that attention-getting song, I pull an interesting object out of a box or bag from the music cart. Nearly every child I’ve ever had in early childhood groups waits with eager anticipation as I unzip the bag and pull out an object that introduces our theme for the day. For example, I might pull out a banana if we are studying monkeys or a wind-up car if our theme is transportation.

Strategy #3: Specify rules. Rather than overloading the kids with rules, I use just two rules in early childhood groups. First, we work on being “good sitters.” That means keeping our bottoms glued to our chair and keeping our hands down. Once most of the kids in the group stay in the area of the activity without hitting or throwing, we introduce the concept of being “good listeners.” Depending on the functioning level of the group, “good listeners” look at the general area of the activity and keep their mouths relatively quiet. Of course, the primary goal of some students is actually to encourage them to initiate language, so the rules must reflect the needs of individual youngsters.

Strategy #4: Don’t “don’t.” Early childhood teachers and therapist speak the word “don’t” many times each day. This is actually a counterproductive habit. Since many youngsters in early childhood settings have deficits in their receptive language, we need to realize that stating a negative direction can lead to major misunderstandings. For example, if we say, “Don’t put the drum under your chair,” the student may miss that key word “don’t” and think you are, indeed, requesting that he put the drum under his chair. It is difficult for four-year-olds to know what to do when we say things like, “Ronnie, I don’t know why you are daydreaming instead of looking at this book about the three bears. You need to stop looking out the window and look up here right now. Don’t look over there again.” Most children, even cooperative kids with excellent receptive language skills, function better if we state exactly what we want them to do. Rather than saying, “Don’t hit,” we can say, “Hands down, now.” We can tell a youngster to be a “good sitter” rather than saying “Don’t get up until I tell you to.” Whispering “Let’s whisper” is more effective than shouting, “Don’t scream.” If a child is getting ready to throw a drum stick, we can hold a zippered instrument bag in directly in front of him and say, “Put the stick in bag now, please.”

Strategy #5: Pick your battles. We simply cannot work on all behaviors at one time, instantly turning all children into angels who follow directions, cooperate, and share instruments with other kids. In my opinion, the first priorities in early childhood circle time are to teach youngsters to stay in the area of the activity and to avoid hurting other people. So, even if a child is yelling, screaming, or interrupting the activity by talking a blue streak, I focus on teaching all the students to be “good sitters,” i.e. bottom on chair and hands to self. Once that is accomplished, we can work on learning to be “good listeners,” i.e. quiet sounds, look at activity, listen to and follow instructions. The key is to prioritize skills and behaviors and address them systematically.

I also try to anticipate challenging behaviors, avoiding situations that precipitate the behavior. For example, if a youngster always puts small objects in his mouth, I give him a choice of two very large maracas or a large hand drum. If a child tends to grab and bite other children, I place his chair right in front of my knees with the rest of the chairs in a semi circle around us where the other students are out of his reach.

Strategy #6: Avoid “all or nothing.” If a youngster screams for thirty minutes, a therapist probably doesn’t feel successful when the child only screams for twenty-nine minutes. But, in reality, decreasing screaming by one minute is a huge step. We tend to measure progress in “all or nothing” terms. Parents, teachers, and therapists want total silence, not twenty-nine minutes of screaming. But, if we decrease screaming just one minute per day, the child will, indeed, be quiet after only thirty days. Collecting data in target areas helps the therapist recognize and keep track of even tiny bits of progress. Documentation also reveals ineffective strategies and provides justification for making changes when necessary.

V. Trade “peace” for “progress”

Let’s look at an early childhood music therapy group after the first 6 months of therapy. Through diligent planning and consistent expectations on the part of the music therapist, the young students have learned to participate more appropriately in circle time. For the most part, they actually come to the group with minimal prompting, sit in their chairs, keep their hands down, focus to some extent on the activity, and participate in making music with the group. Everything is running fairly smoothly, so we are certainly tempted to maintain the status quo. But, that is not our job as music therapists. We are to help each student make on-going, steady progress in specific target areas and we are to challenge the youngsters to develop more sophisticated group skills. Now that we have reached this level of relative calm in circle time group, it it time to raise the bar, even at the risk of losing the peaceful atmosphere.

A. Focus on specific goals and objectives. Once the group is relatively cooperative and attentive, we can to turn our attention to individual needs, providing opportunities during circle time for each student to enhance their language and communication skills, to learn cognitive concepts, and to practice motor skills and daily living skills as specified on their Individualized Education Plans.

B. Raise the bar. It is up to us as therapists to gradually raise the level of expectations for each student, meeting them where they are and setting the occasion for them to take one step forward. For example, we can help increase attention span by gradually increasing the length of music activities and the length of the circle time session. We can help youngster learn to initiate self-help by requiring them to come forward to pick out an instrument rather than automatically handing them a drum. We can teach students critical group skills such patiently waiting their turn as each student plays a solo on a keyboard. We can expand their musical interests and repertoire by introducing sophisticated music along with popular “kid songs.” Music provides many opportunities for young children to stretch and grow despite their limitations.

It is certainly easier to avoid challenges and to maintain the status quo, but our job as music therapists is to maximize the abilities of each student and to enhance the quality of their lives. We can’t do that by singing the same familiar songs and recycling the same tried and true strategies without raising the bar of expectation for each and every student.

We’re Great lyrics and music adapted by Cathy Knoll

We’re great! (We’re great!) but nobody knows it, nobody knows it so far.
Someday (someday!) they’ll realize how wonderful we are.
They look at us (hmmmmm!) and they’ll point at us (hmmmmm!)
Then they’ll shout, “Hooray!” (hooray!)
We’re great! (We’re great!) but nobody knows it, they’ll all know someday.
Name each child, e.g. “Harley is great! And Becca is great!”
We….are….GREAT! (We’re great!)

VI. Conclusion

In closing, circle time in early childhood certainly presents many challenges. Music therapists are encouraged to use the behavior management techniques discussed in this symposium for AMTA.Pro as well as information from the resources section found below as springboards for developing effective interventions to address the specific needs of each individual and of the group as a whole in music therapy groups in early childhood settings.

Again, I am Cathy Knoll. You can contact me via e-mail at I am a self-employed, board certified music therapist with experience working at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, Texas Lions Camp, Southern Concepts group homes, and Fosters Home for Children. Since 1978, I’ve contracted services to four school districts in north-central Texas, and provided music therapy services for groups and individuals in my home-based music therapy clinic. I produce professional self-study courses through Music Works Publications, and I produce daily podcasts for Please feel free to comment on any aspect of this AMTA.Pro on-line symposium, Circle Time in Early Childhood: Managing Behavior in Music Therapy Groups.

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Humpal, M. & Colwell, C. (Eds.). (2006). Early childhood and school age educational settings: Using music to maximize learning. Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association.

In addition to a wealth of information useful to music therapists working in early childhood, this book includes a comprehensive resource section – a gathering of journal articles, activity guides and books, music textbook series, audio recordings, children’s literature with a musical theme, fact sheets, and professional organizations and websites that focus on music and music therapy for young children with a wide variety of abilities and disabilities. Rather than replicating the treasure chest of resources, I simply encourage you to get a copy of the book. Now!

Additional Websites


Behavior Disorders

Early Childhood

Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Music Therapy

© Copyright 2009 by the American Music Therapy Association, Inc.. All Rights Reserved. Content herein is for personal use only. No part may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording by any information storage or retrieval system, without express written permission from the American Music Therapy Association.

Neither the American Music Therapy Association nor its Board of Directors is responsible for the conclusions reached or the opinions expressed in any of the AMTA.Pro symposiums.