School district's only adaptive music teacher helps students communicate with music

Tuesday, December 18, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:32 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Linda Neale, an adaptive music teacher for the Columbia Public Schools, mostly uses percussion instruments such as drums, tambourines, maracas with her students.

COLUMBIA — When a little girl claps her hands for the first time, it's usually not  a milestone celebrated by her teacher. But for Linda Neale, Columbia's only adaptive music teacher, it was a moment that gave her goosebumps.

Neale uses music to help special education students in Columbia communicate more proficiently. Neale works with students in kindergarten through 12th grade. 

She visits five to seven schools a couple of days each week. Neale visits each class twice a week for 30 minutes. With close to 30 schools in Columbia Public Schools, Neale visits 13 on a weekly basis.

For the most part, Neale works with schools whose special education programs are on the community skills track. On this track, the focus is on helping special education students to function in the community once they graduate from high school. They also work on learning how to communicate better.

Neale works with students with a wide range of abilities. Because each class has a diverse population of its own, Neale's lesson plans must differ from class to class. She said this was one of the challenges of her job.

"It's really rewarding to see students responding," she said.

In her class, Neale adjusts music curriculum to suit the learning styles of special needs students. The lessons she prepares are, in most cases, their only exposure to music, she said. Lessons are done at a slower pace, and activities are repeated more often to facilitate the different learning patterns.

Because some of Neale's students are sensitive to loud noises, they might learn better with more one-on-one interactions and a quieter atmosphere. Many of Neale's students also have trouble reading, so she uses a lot of visuals as well, she said.

During lessons, students use a variety of rhythm instruments including drums, maracas and tambourines. 

Neale said she has found that when she focuses students on singing or playing instruments, rather than doing both simultaneously, the students respond better. Some students, however, are able to do both.

"A lot of the students that I work with aren't verbal," she said. "Sometimes when music is used, they will become more verbal."

Occasionally, Neale will give a lesson and have students who do not seem to respond to the music. Later in the week, teachers will tell her that after she left their classrooms, students have hummed or clapped to the songs she taught them.

"Their teachers will tell me that during the week, they sing," she said. "That's really gratifying to hear."

Neale, born and raised in New York, was a music education major and earned her bachelor's degree from Ithaca College. When her husband started working on his master's degree in Tennessee, she decided to take some courses in music therapy. Neale and her husband then moved to Columbia, where she applied to teach music.

When the adaptive music position in the district opened up 14 years ago, Neale saw it as a chance to really influence the school district and its students. Neale has been filling the role ever since.

Neale said she enjoys working with individuals in small groups where she can use her creativity. Her one-on-one interactions make every day experiences memorable moments.

"I look for really little successes," Neale said. "I've learned to be really excited about those."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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