How Music Unlocks the ADHD Brain

Learning an instrument helped my son increase his attention and boost his performance. Here's how you can use music to give your ADHD/LD child a leg up, too.

Sharlene Habermeyer's son Brandon playing the piano at age 12, using music to treat his ADHD

I enrolled Brandon in several learning programs, but music unlocked his ability to learn.

-- Sharlene Habermeyer

Children do not come in tidy packages — they come with spontaneity, energy, and delicious individuality. Some have learning challenges that affect them physically, cognitively, emotionally, and/or behaviorally. The good news is that music can help with most of them.

In 1982, my third son, Brandon, suffered a traumatic birth that left him with pre-frontal cortex damage. He was a fussy baby, cried all the time, and had constant ear infections, speech and language delays, and severe separation anxiety. At six, he was diagnosed with ADHD, auditory processing, auditory discrimination, visual-motor, visual perception, and sensory motor problems. The difference between his oral and written IQ was 38 points, indicating severe learning disabilities. A team of school and professional experts concluded that he would have a hard time learning, focusing, and concentrating. They said he may not graduate from high school; college was out of the question.

I decided to take the experts' conclusions as one possibility, and not get too discouraged. I researched ADHD and learning disabilities — asking questions and aggressively networking. I learned that it takes time to solve such challenges. I learned that all learning disabilities start with auditory processing — the child can hear, but has difficulty processing what he hears. This can affect his ability to concentrate and focus. I enrolled Brandon in learning programs, many of which helped. Music, though, was the key to unlocking his ability to learn.

Rhythm of Change

Music strengthens the areas of the brain that, in the child with ADHD, are weak. Music builds and strengthens the auditory, visual/spatial, and motor cortices of the brain. These areas are tied to speech and language, reading, reading comprehension, math, problem solving, brain organization, focusing, concentration, and attention issues. Studies indicate that when learning-disabled children and children with ADHD learn a musical instrument, attention, concentration, impulse control, social functioning, self-esteem, self-expression, motivation, and memory improve. Some studies show that children who have difficulty focusing when there is background noise are particularly helped by music lessons.

Starting from birth, Brandon listened to classical music and, by age three, he was taking group music lessons. By five, I was teaching him piano by color-coding the keyboard. By eight, he was taking private lessons.

To support Brandon in school, I created musical games. For instance, I made up musical jingles to teach him spelling. We clapped out rhythms while learning addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts. I created songs, jingles, and rhyming couplets for material he was learning in social studies, science, and language arts. Coupled with formal music lessons, concepts became easier for him to grasp and understand. His ability to concentrate and focus for longer periods increased each year. After a long, hard climb, Brandon was accepted to a four-year university, and he eventually graduated with straight A's in film and philosophy.

Here are the sound strategies I used with Brandon. I have no doubt that they will work with your child as well.

> Start group music lessons. When he is about 18 months old, find a group music program for your child.

> Get into the rhythm. Our biological systems work on precise rhythms (think heartbeat). If these rhythms are out of sync, it is hard for anyone to focus and stay on task. Using rhythm instruments is a powerful way to sync the natural biorhythms of the body, allowing the child to feel "in tune" with his environment. So put on music with a strong beat — the "Baby Dance" CD is good — and beat out, bang out, or clang out the rhythm of the music with your child.

> Dance to the music. Movement for an ADHD child is a must! In fact, movement is an indispensable part of learning, thinking, and focusing. As a child moves to different cadences and rhythms, his physical coordination and ability to concentrate improve.

> Draw what you hear. Many ADHD children are creative and in search of creative outlets. Drawing or doodling engages motor skills, organizes the brain, and stimulates artistic juices. After a busy day at school, and before your child jumps into homework, give her paper and crayons, put on some classical music, and let her draw.

I used to play a game with Brandon called "Draw What You Hear." I put on classical music and Brandon drew or doodled to the music. Later, when he was in high school, these exercises helped him shut out outside noise, and relaxed his mind.

> Read music books. I'm a strong advocate of reading to your children every day. Reading builds focus, concentration, vocabulary, speech and language, and writing skills. I read many books to our sons, some of which were associated with music: Swine Lake, by James Marshall (a great book to introduce your kids to the ballet Swan Lake), and Lentil, by Robert McCloskey.

> Start private music lessons between the ages of five and seven. If you are a parent with ADHD, take music lessons along with your child.

> Find an ADD-friendly instrument. The string bass, woodwinds, and percussion instruments are good choices, because a child can stand and move while playing them. Let your child choose his own instrument. If he decides on drums, buy earplugs!

> March in the morning. Children with ADHD usually have a hard time attending to tasks during the busy morning hours. Every morning, play marching music (John Philip Sousa tunes are great) and march from activity to activity — getting dressed, making beds, eating breakfast, brushing teeth — with feet moving and arms swaying.

> Sing your way to school. Teachers want students to be ready to learn when they come to class. So, on your way to school, sing in the car or play classical music. Singing demands total focus. "The Alphabet Operetta," by Mindy Manley Little, is perfect.

> Orchestrate homework. Some classical music changes the way the brain processes information by changing its electromagnetic frequencies. As a result of listening, children and adults are able to absorb, retain, and retrieve information better. When doing homework, try listening to George Frederic Handel's Water Music or Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerti.

> Combine music and nature. Studies show that listening to music while walking in nature has a beneficial effect on the brain. The combination re-sets the brain — increasing its focus and priming it for learning.

How is Brandon doing today? He is 31 years old, married, works in the film industry, and writes blogs on philosophy. Music is still an important part of his life. He listens to classical music while traveling to work each day and plays the piano weekly. Brandon has the tools and understanding to make ADHD his "friend." He will always be somewhat of a round peg expected to fit in a square hole, but he is a happy, successful adult who embraces the differences in people.

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