Friday, January 18, 2013

Music Therapy on the IEP: Layman's Terms for Parents As Advocates

Originally enacted in 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees the rights of all children with disabilities to a “free and appropriate public education.” For some excellent resources on IDEA and what all it entails, see here and here.

Any parent whose child is receiving special education services under IDEA is generally familiar with the rights and services they receive under IDEA, but it seems like the best-kept secret of IDEA is that music therapy is a related service.

This means that music therapy can be added to a child’s IEP at no cost to the family. If you know how to ask for it and are willing to be assertive about your rights as a parent, your school system will pay for your child to receive music therapy services as part of their IEP. For information and research on how music therapy can improve educational and quality of life outcomes for children with a variety of needs and diagnoses, please see: Music Therapy with Young Children

The basic process for obtaining music therapy services on an IEP is outlined as simply as possible below. (Credit for the following information goes to Judy Simpson, cited under “References.”)

1. Request a Music Therapy Assessment
Under IDEA, parents are an equal part of the IEP team and have the right to request assessments for related services. Parents can request an IEP meeting or can wait for the next scheduled meeting to make a request for a music therapy assessment. Parents have the right to contract with a music therapist separately for an assessment, of course, but that gives the school system the right to refute the results of the assessment. Time and expense can be saved by going through the school system for the assessment to begin with. Once an assessment has been requested, a school system cannot legally deny you one, but many may try as a way to avoid the expense of paying for services. You may need to remind the school system that you are guaranteed the right to assessments for your child and they must comply.

2. Music Therapy Assessment is Completed
Once the school system complies, they will contract with a music therapist of their choosing to complete the assessment for your child. You may want to check The Certification Board for Music Therapists to make sure the therapist the school contracts is actually a board-certified music therapist. Assessments vary somewhat from state to state, but in order for a music therapist to recommend that your child receive services, your child’s progress toward IEP goals will need to be measured without music therapy services and with them. If a qualified therapist determines that your child will make significantly more progress toward IEP goals with music therapy to the point that music therapy can be considered necessary for your child’s education, then that therapist will recommend services for your child.

3. Following Up With the School System
Again, many school systems will balk at this stage and attempt to deny access to services. This is generally for financial reasons. However, they are in violation of IDEA laws if they attempt to withhold services after a qualified therapist has deemed those services necessary. A written notice and reminder of their duty is all that is typically needed to encourage a school system to comply. However, sometimes it is necessary to enlist legal help and inform the school system that you will be seeking fulfillment of your rights through the courts if necessary. That being said, it is almost never necessary to actually go to court as most school systems find that the expense and bad press of litigation are not worth fighting. If you find that your school system is reluctant to grant you access to your rights, there are many organizations for parents of children with special needs who can provide you a lawyer at little to no cost.

A Final Note: Parents as Advocates
Parents, as advocates for their child’s rights, must drive the process of obtaining music therapy services on the IEP. This removes music therapists from a real or perceived conflict of interest in assessing and recommending for or against services. However, if you would like assistance and resources for the process, it is strongly recommended that you contact the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) and let them know that you are attempting to add music therapy services to your child’s IEP. AMTA can assist parents by providing research and public relations materials, a letter of support addressed directly to school administrators, a copy of the letter from the U.S. Department of Education which clarifies music therapy as a related service, as well as many other additional resources. 

If you decide to pursue music therapy services for your child, I wish you the best of luck. You may find that music therapy makes a difference!


Simpson, J. (2002). Increasing access to music therapy: The roles of parents, music therapists, and AMTA. In B. L. Wilson (Ed.), Models of music therapy interventions in school settings (2nd ed., pp. 3-6). Silver Spring, MD: The American Music Therapy Association, Inc.


  1. Emily,

    This was very informative. I am current graduate student studying music therapy and am in an assistive technology class. We have been discussing IEP teams and I want others in the class to know that music therapists could play a roll in the IEP process for a child as well.

    1. Akilah, thanks for stopping by! I am glad you found the information helpful! Please feel free to share. :-D