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Ahjay Stelino
BY Ahjay Stelino

Adapting Popular Children’s Songs for Kids with Special Needs

We all have beloved nursery rhymes that we treasure. They are an integral part of our childhood and can spark many fond memories. We all have the desire to share these songs with the next generation. If your child or grandchild has special needs and you want to share your favorite songs with them this article is for you!

How we Process Music

When a song is played in a room, either live or recorded, our ears feel the sound vibrations in the room and send the brain a message about the nature of these vibrations. The brain then interprets these vibrations and attributes meaning to the lyrics and musical aspects of the song.

How a Child with Special Needs Processes Music

A majority of kids with special needs have a cognitive impairment. This means that the brain takes longer to process information. So when a song is played and the message is sent from the ear to the brain, the brain will take longer to process this information. Therefore, when a song designed for use with mainstream children is presented to a child with special needs, it could result in a sensory overload since the brain may be receiving information faster than it can process it. This could result in reduced understanding and enjoyment of the song.

How to Help Improve Cognitive Processing of Music for Children with Special Needs

The trick is to give the song a KISS – Keep it Simple Sweetheart! Let look at the elements we can keep simple:

1. Song Tempo

The first is the tempo, that is, the speed at which the song is sung. As a rough guide, slow down the tempo of the song to at least 3 times slower than the usual tempo at which you sing the song.

2. Song Lyrics

Adapt the lyrics to minimise the number of themes, instructions or actions that it contains. As a rule, focus on having only one theme per verse. Here are two examples:

3. Head Shoulder Knees and Toes

Let’s take the classic “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” as an example. Each verse (that is each repeat) of the song contains 8 body parts that need to be tapped – head, shoulders, knees, toes, eyes, ears, mouth, nose. While this is great exercise in dexterity for a mainstream early childhood classroom, it’s too much for a child with special needs. It is more effective to focus on only one body part per verse. Watch the video below to see a demonstration of this adapted version.

Video: Adapting Head Shoulder Knees and Toes for Kids with Special Needs

4. Open Shut Them

This one isn’t as complicated as the song above, but again can be simplified to just a single action. Focus the whole verse on just opening and shutting your fingers rather than adding the clap and tap. The focus on just the open and shut them also lets it work as a great exercise in anticipation. Watch the video below to see a demonstration of this adapted version.

Video: Adapting Open Shut Them for Kids with Special Needs

Have a Go!

Watch the videos and see if it inspires you to adapt your favorite nursery rhymes. Add them to the discussion below. May be even write your own songs using these ideas! You can find a collection of songs that I have written for kids with special needs on my album “Music Therapy Songs for Special Kids.” More info is available at

Ahjay Stelino

Written on April 22, 2015 by:

Ahjay Stelino is a Registered Music Therapist. He has a Masters in Music Therapy with First Class Honours from the New Zealand School of Music and a Licentiate Teaching Diploma in Electric Guitar from the London College of Music. He is registered with the New Zealand Music Therapy Registration Board. He has over 10 years of experience working with the use of music in the fields of special needs and mental health. He is a multi-instrumentalist, mixing engineer, producer and owner of Stelino Studios in Auckland, New Zealand.