Indiana State University Newsroom

Collaboration yields literacy, music lessons for special needs children

December 9, 2015

Every Saturday this fall, three professors and the director of the Community School of the Arts gathered at Indiana State University to provide a new special needs class for the Terre Haute community.

"Literacy and Music: For Life!" was a collaboration between Petra Nyendick, director of State's Community School of the Arts, Margaret Ladyman, assistant professor in the department of applied medicine and rehabilitation at State, Bridget Roberts-Pittman, associate professor of counseling at State and Sharon Boyle, associate professor of music therapy at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Nyendick, Ladyman and Boyle designed the program with the goal of implementing a multi-sensory course by connecting both music and literacy. With the use of "Handwriting without Tears," a nationally acclaimed literacy improvement program, and music therapy, the young students were able to better recognize letters. Additionally, the children were provided opportunities to develop a range of skills through a combination of occupational and music therapy experiences.

Terre Haute has a deep need for a program that helps special needs children improve basic literacy skills, organizers say. The nearest program with a similar purpose is in Bloomington.

Locally, the class was structured to keep the students engaged. Each class started with music, encouraging them to move around freely. Handwriting and other occupational therapy activities were scheduled in the middle of each class, because it required more focus from the participants.

"We ended with music again to allow the children to further increase their interaction with other children, as well as provide sensory awareness and encourage social skill such as sitting, taking turns and playing instruments together," Boyle said.

Saint Mary-of-the-Wood's music therapy student Nathan Mensah led the music therapy portion of each class.

Rania Mourad, an occupational therapy graduate student from Perrysburg, Ohio, facilitated the other portions of the class with the help of graduate students Alex Helmick, Elizabeth Russell, Monica Morris, Sarah Cole and Beth Ludema.

Mourad's role as a student instructor was to help the youngsters with a wide variety of abilities to develop the skills they need to make handwriting more automatic, legible and fluent.

"Every child has a unique combination of abilities and learning needs," Mourad said. "Every child deserves the opportunity to overcome their obstacles and realize their full potential."

Throughout the duration of the class, Mourad and Ladyman started with a unique set of skills to teach the students and made appropriate modifications as needed.

Experts recognize raising a child on the spectrum can be stressful on the family and parents' marriage.

Under the direction of psychology Professor Bridget Roberts-Pittman, a support group was created to provide an outlet for parents of the children involved with the literacy class in a room next door.

The goal of the parental support group was to create a safe space for moms and dads who have something in common to discuss their experiences, share ideas and provide emotional support. The parents began to realize they are not alone in their journey, organizers say.

Clinical mental health counseling graduate students Ashley Lynch, Quillian Murphy, Johnathan Detwiler, Courtney Hull, Evelyn Huffman, Megan Neitling and Lucille Gardner worked together to facilitate the group, guided the conversations and provided support and help with problem solving.

"Each week, I learned that getting a group of people together who share a common interest is extremely powerful. I realized how important it is to provide support to other and how beneficial that can be in the future," Lynch said.

Originally from Lawrenceville, Ill., Lynch chose State for her master's degree studies based on the way the program is structured and the different programs offered.

"The one-way mirror experience and individual supervision from our supervisors provided me with the tools, knowledge, skills and feedback I needed to become a successful mental health counselor now and in the future," said Lynch, who plans to graduate in May.

At State, the Community School of the Arts provides "high quality learning experiences in the performing and fine arts to personals of all ages, economic circumstances and ability levels throughout the Wabash Valley of west-central Indiana."

This project is made possible through the assistance of the Dr. William G. and Susan Gans McCarthy Endowment as well as the Indiana State University Foundation.

Ladyman, Boyle and Nyendick say they hope to offer the class again next fall and continue to provide special opportunities for the community. Provided everything goes as planned, "Autism Breakthrough," a book about autism intervention, will be utilized to foster a new type of conversation.

"It was an honor to be a part of," Ladyman said.

-30- -- Indiana State University occupational and music therapy students work with children to teach them the capital alphabet. -- Music is used to help the children learn many abilities including new social skills.

Contact: Petra Nyendick, director of the Community School of the Arts, Indiana State University, 812-237-2575 or

Writer: Mallory Eherenman, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3773 or