How Making Music Can Help Students Cope with Trauma

Music therapy

Studies about the Ten Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have shown that most people have experienced one of these traumas in childhood, such as being abused, having a parent who is incarcerated, experiencing homelessness, among others. The trauma one experiences in childhood can affect adult mental and physical health in later years, especially if a person has multiple ACEs. While the harm can have lasting impacts, health professionals have identified ways to mitigate the effects by nurturing supportive relationships with adult caregivers.

Schools can also play a supportive role by helping kids who have experienced trauma. And at the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul, Minnesota, making music is a means of healing.

“Writing lyrics feels safer than directly speaking about what she’s been through,” says Tabitha Wheeler, a social worker at the school describing a teen who composed a song about her psychological pain and childhood trauma.

It’s crucial for adolescents and young adults to receive mental health care and emotional support. However, teens aren’t always eager to speak about their suffering. But when it comes to treating the continuum of trauma, studies show art and music—known as expressive arts therapy—can calm the body’s stress response, which can help adolescents feel safer in the classroom.

Through the use of art, music and writing, teachers and faculty at HSRA rely on “creative pedagogical practices” to help students connect with their intellectual talents, which can foster academic confidence.

“We see full-on art and music engagement as tools for academic re-engagement,” said Joey Cienian, director of educational programming at HSRA.

For other HSRA students, the recording studio becomes a learning lab where they create brilliant poetry, compose music or play an instrument.

“When talking about their mental health, our students can’t always say, ‘This is how I’m feeling,’ because they’ve been hurt by people in positions of power,” explains Cienian. Engaging in music and art is one way the kids can self-soothe.

(Rap artist Nimic Revenue is a recent graduate of HRSA)

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While it might sound unconventional, music has been used as a form of medicine for decades. Thousands of years ago, the Greeks believed the soft, melodic sounds of the flute could heal physical illnesses like gout and sciatica. More recently, music has found its place in the classroom, helping students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention-Deficit Disorder.

At HSRA, music and art allow students to share their narratives. “We want our students to embrace their authenticity, which can come from tapping into creative expression,” says Cienian.

He adds that many HSRA students aren’t comfortable discussing their hardships, but they’re ready to enter the studio and make beats or record a track.

“Recently, a student felt uneasy telling his teachers and counselors about his mental health concerns and family history,” shares Cienian. Instead, he went to the recording studio and began writing rap lyrics in a notebook.

A teacher walked by and saw the student. Taking the opportunity to connect, they sat together while the student shared his writing, which illuminated the family chaos and mental health symptoms he was experiencing.

“After the meeting, the teacher had a better sense of the student’s needs, which made it easier to add additional emotional and academic support,” says Cienian. For this student, the connection was healing because he felt understood, not judged.

Cienian shares that HSRA teachers and faculty strive to bring students into a program where respect, community and education are valued. “They’re simple values, but they’re profound in action. And when students find their voice, it’s empowering,” he adds.

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