Connecting with children through music is a uniquely powerful way to support and strengthen their mental health. Music therapists understand this better than most. Using music as a therapeutic intervention, they build bridges of communication with children and help them create pathways to building their own resiliency.

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In Episode 148, we spoke with Cynthia Smith, founder of Sparks for Success, and Amber Sarpy, music therapist at Sparks for Success, to learn more about their work with children of incarcerated parents.

Children of Incarcerated Parents

“Music is an international language. It speaks to everyone in some form or fashion,” says Cynthia Smith, founder of Sparks for Success (Sparks).

Established in Austin in 2016, Sparks is the only Austin-area non-profit that offers free music therapy to children of incarcerated parents or guardians through the public school system. Working in cooperation with Communities in Schools of Central Texas, therapists from Sparks meet with children to help them overcome trauma and build resilience.

Spark’s primary goal is to prevent children from entering the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’ According to Protecting Chrysalis, a New York based nonprofit dedicated to breaking systemic inequalities that contribute to generational cycles of incarceration, children with incarcerated parents are at higher risk of developing mental health problems. These can include difficulties managing their emotions, behavior, and relationships.

“We use music therapy to help children learn how to communicate their needs and their feelings, how to relate to other people, how to build resilience, and understand that they can make positive choices,” Cynthia says. “It’s an evidence-based therapeutic engagement that is particularly suited to working with elementary aged children. In addition, music itself is indicated as a treatment in helping heal the parts of the brain that are impacted by trauma.”

Music Therapy

Music therapy involves a variety of activities, including playing instruments, writing lyrics, analyzing lyrics, and moving one’s body. Working in multiple modes often helps children unlock different aspects of a traumatic experience than they could using talk therapy alone, says Amber Sarpy, music therapist with Sparks.

“How do children express how they’re feeling if they don’t have the language skills or if they just don’t want to talk about it?” Amber asks. “They may simply need someone to be present with them and give them a space to slowly unravel their situation in a safe way.”

Playing music together is a powerful way to build this essential rapport between child and therapist.

“Making music becomes part of the child’s experience. The music grounds them. It steadies them. It stabilizes them. It can lead to an ability and willingness to share through language,” Amber says.

Sparks for Success

Before establishing Sparks, Cynthia was leading another school-based therapeutic intervention program. Unfortunately, it didn’t result in the positive student outcomes that she had hoped for.

“Our organization was at a crossroads,” Cynthia says. “We decided we needed to do something different.”

Conveniently, her decision to make a change coincided with meeting Amber at a school resource event and learning of her idea to lead therapeutic drumming circles with students. Cynthia was receptive. And, as it turns out, so were students.

“Almost immediately – just six to eight weeks after beginning the drumming sessions, we were getting positive feedback from counselors, classroom teachers, life skills teachers,” says Cynthia. “Over time, the drumming circles evolved into music therapy sessions.”

Building Capacity

As a music therapist, Amber focuses on using music to meet children where they are socially, emotionally, and academically. A variety of activities help her do this.

For example, she may ask a child to choose a song to listen to, understanding that the song’s lyrics may speak to the child’s feelings and emotions more powerfully than their own words. In another therapeutic activity, she asks children to substitute their own words for a song’s lyrics. Working within the song’s existing structure offers a safe space for students to build their emotional vocabulary or explore a traumatic event.

“Through music, I’m working to build relationships and build capacity. I want to walk alongside the student as they discover ways to make meaning of their situation and create goals,” Amber says. “Their goals might be things like controlling their emotions, making deeper connections with their friends, or talking about their experience and how it has impacted them.”

Indeed, a positive outcome of music therapy might look as simple as a child learning to advocate for themselves, says Amber.

“Being able to say things like, ‘I’d like to do this today,’ ‘I don’t like that,’ ‘I don’t feel that way,’ ‘This is what I need’ or ‘This is what I want’ shows that a child is building an awareness of self, of others, and of their environment,” Amber says. “And this self-advocacy greatly helps a child excel and be successful in their lives.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Throughout the month, we celebrate stories of recovery, strides in mental health policy, and the many things our grantee partners are doing to transform mental health in their communities. Don’t miss out!

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