A major, a minor and one particular class converged to lead Kelsi Yingling ’13 down a new path within familiar educational territory.
Yingling, 23, of The Plains, Virginia, is the first graduate of Shenandoah Conservatory’s music therapy program to study for the Master of Science in Education with a special education concentration (MSE-SPED) offered by Shenandoah University’s School of Education & Human Development. She graduated with her master’s degree in May 2015.
Originally accepted to Shenandoah as a voice performance major, Yingling shifted her focus to music therapy the summer before her freshman year, when she realized that she wanted to use her voice to affect the lives of others. “I knew music therapy would provide me with the fulfillment in life that I was always looking for, while also allowing me to further my passion for music.”
In keeping with her people-centered mindset, she minored in psychology. “One class in particular, Psychology in the Classroom, opened my eyes to the educational world, particularly special education. It was in that class that I began to make the connections between the two fields [music therapy and special education].”
Those connections solidified in Yingling’s final year of undergraduate studies. Shenandoah music therapy majors must complete a six-month clinical internship prior to graduating, and Yingling underwent hers at the Early Beginnings Academy Charter School program by United Cerebral Palsy of Miami in Miami, Florida. As she worked in an interdisciplinary team of speech pathologists, occupational and physical therapists and special educators to improve the lives of children from birth to age 8, she knew she would also pursue special education. “It was there that I truly saw the collaborative nature of special educators and music therapists, and I constantly thought of new ways that I could incorporate music into the classroom in order to teach academic concepts.”
She understood immediately how she wanted her career to progress and took her first graduate-level class in special education through Shenandoah while still completing her internship. It was a distance- education course. “Following graduation, I went straight into pursuing my master’s degree full time in special education, while also working as an autism teaching assistant at John Champe High School in Aldie, Virginia.”
Yingling chose graduate studies at Shenandoah not only because she was already an alumna, but because she was well-acquainted with the MSE-SPED program under the direction of Associate Professor of Education, Special Education Diane D. Painter, Ph.D., who also provided guidance to Yingling as she researched graduate schools. “I really liked the format of the program, which included a mixture of distance-education classes, as well as in-the- classroom classes,” Yingling said. “Because of this, it allowed me to do my master’s full time rather than part-time because of the flexibility. Also the classes are all in the evening, so I was able to attend classes after my work day. The flexibility of the program was a major factor in my decision to attend Shenandoah.”
Yingling will receive her initial teaching license with an endorsement in Special Education-General Curriculum, K-12, when she completes the master’s program and earns passing grades on the Virginia Communication and Literary Assessment and Reading for Virginia Educators tests.
After serving as an autism teaching assistant, Yingling moved into the role of autism program teacher at John Champe for ￼the 2014-15 school year. “I teach team-taught and self-contained biology classes,” said Yingling, who says she will take the Praxis II test for a second teaching endorsement in biology. “As the autism program teacher, I’ve not only confirmed my passion for working with individuals with autism, but I have also uniquely connected on many levels with my students through music,” she said.
“My music therapy training inadvertently has provided me with the skills to alter instruction based on student need in appropriate ways for my students,” Yingling said. “An important aspect of music therapy is ensuring that your clients are able to access interventions in the most appropriate ways possible, whether it be through assistive technology, adapted instruments, manipulatives, personal interest or learning styles. This has allowed me to transfer these skills to the classroom with ease and take into account all students’ differences when planning in order to access the instructional content.”
While Yingling’s path from music therapy into special education isn’t typical, it isn’t unheard of, according to Shenandoah Director of Undergraduate Music Therapy Studies and Assistant Professor of Music Therapy Daniel Tague, Ph.D. Music therapists often work within the special education realm as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team for a student, in the same fashion as a speech or physical therapist.
Dr. Tague, who worked as a music therapist within schools for a decade before getting his doctoral degree, said many aspects of music therapy can transfer into special education. Music therapy students learn classroom management, do session planning akin to lesson planning and learn how to establish goals and objectives. They also work on speech and cognitive goals, he said. “That would be her background,” he said.
Students in Shenandoah’s music therapy program, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, train as generalists and learn to work with a variety of populations: geriatric, adult, mental health and education, Tague said. He also noted that over the course of his career, when he has seen music therapists become special educators, they’ve tended to work in the early childhood area, in early intervention/Pre-K environments. He doesn’t see the trend in high school teachers quite as often.
Most of the students who come to the MSE-SPED program don’t have backgrounds like Yingling’s, either. Dr. Painter said most of her students have psychology or liberal arts degrees in subjects like history or English. A few have business, math, and science degrees. As a special education teacher for 21 years of her 30 years as a teacher in Maryland and Virginia, Painter understands the importance of varying teacher skill sets. “Based on my experiences, I found working with students through many different modalities is so important because people learn in different ways,” she said. “Having students trained in music therapy enter the special education field — where they can employ the therapies used in their music therapy training to teach students to communicate and appropriately respond to others as well as learn academics — is something we can encourage here at Shenandoah, since we have both programs.
“Music therapy majors also learn about how children develop and communicate, [and] they learn in depth about cognitive functioning and principles of behavior,” Painter added. She then pointed out the experience that could be the crucial link for a music therapy student contemplating education — the internship. “Having internship experiences with persons with disabilities helps teaching candidates know that they can and want to work with individuals who have a variety of learning and/or behavioral challenges.”
“The two disciplines [music therapy and special education] really complement each other in many ways, and my colleagues definitely support me on both sides of the spectrum,” said Yingling, who had her career epiphany during her internship. Special education relies on developing appropriate goals and accommodations for students and tracking progress toward those, she said. In music therapy, one similarly learns how to develop individualized specific, measurable and time-bound goals and objectives based on client need and track progress toward those goals.
“I really try to incorporate music as much as possible in my teaching, whether it be through musical mnemonics, identifying emotions in music, or projects. My students are very open to the integration of music in the class, and they actually embrace it because it is often a much more engaging experience for everyone,” she said. “Oftentimes, students are able to commit information to memory more easily if it’s in the form of a catchy tune or familiar song.
“I really like to incorporate music into my Basic Skills instruction, which is a critical course for students with autism. During this class, we really focus on all facets of social skills, and music can help foster and elicit great discussions. Recently, my students and I explored different musical genres and the emotions they provoke, and it was a very difficult, yet critical, experience for many of my students as they struggle with identification of emotions and emotional regulation.”
Yingling’s work isn’t only essential to her students — it’s also in demand. Painter said special education was listed as the top critical teaching endorsement area in Virginia for the current school year. She also noted that a wave of Baby-Boomer- generation teacher retirements has continued to hit, which has also prompted the need. She’s part of that generation, having retired from Fairfax County Public Schools in 2005. “However, I chose to continue as a teacher-educator in order to prepare the next generation of special education teachers — like Kelsi Yingling,” she said.
Photo: Rick Ours
— Contributed by Stephanie Mangino