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A little song and dance go a long way

The favorite part of the day has arrived for 9-year-old Tony Heard at the Manhattan Exceptional Center. It's music time, and he's ready to sing.

"Good morning, good morning, good morning to you," he sings cheerfully, along with his eight classmates. "Our day is beginning, there's so much to do."

Across the room, other little faces light up with smiles as their arms wave through the air to the beat of the music.

In this class, music has a special purpose.

For more than 20 years, music specialist Mary McGaughy has taught mentally handicapped children through song and dance. Her students are "trainable mentally handicapped," a designation that means they can learn job skills and, in many cases, live independently as adults.

With songs and repetition, children learn to recognize shapes, colors, days of the week, names and addresses, and their date of birth. Dancing and singing also are used in her curriculum to teach coordination and verbal skills. Increasing the students' confidence is a primary requirement.

"Learning to enhance self-esteem and self-concept is of utmost importance," McGaughy said.

Fellow music specialist Kristin Raymond also enjoys instilling self-worth in her students.

"They're so excited when they can remember something. It really makes them have more confidence," said Raymond, who's in her first year of teaching.

For some children, a song is a good way to remember important information. Raymond recently set the numbers and phonics of a student's new address to musical notes, much like the ABCs. This made the address easier for the child to remember.

In addition to learning memory-building skills, the children also are taught songs that exercise their coordination.

McGaughy demonstrated by leading the class in a favorite song called "Body Rock." The song identifies parts of the body such as hips, knees, feet and hands while students dance along.

In the next song of the morning, the children played tambourines, drumsticks and jingle bells. Raymond said that for some children, music can provide an emotional outlet to express their feelings.

Finally, at the end of the music session, time is taken to commend each child for a job well done. McGaughy does this by giving each child a slip of paper with a smiling face on it. Each child leaves the class happy, with a token of positive reinforcement.

Sometimes music can bring about incredible results. Sadie King, a teacher's aide, has seen many.

"I've seen kids who weren't able to walk, walk. And children who weren't able to feed themselves, begin feeding themselves," she said.

Tony Heard's regular teacher, Paulette Leigh, also has noticed the effect music has on her class. She said she believes some of her shy students are talking more because of the singing. Overall, she said, the whole class has benefited.

"They seem so much happier and livelier after music class," she said.

Claudia Davidsen, supervisor of elementary education in Hillsborough County, also said music education can reach children who may seem unreachable.

She recalled one 5-year-old girl named Michelle who was an elective mute, meaning she chose not to speak. Teachers worked diligently, trying to teach her to speak. One was a music teacher. Each time Michelle learned a new word, she was brought back to the music teacher so that he could praise her progress.

"They focused on her adoration of him," Davidsen said. "He would respond to her, and she would learn new words. By December, she sang a solo in the Christmas program entitled Ebony and Ivory.

"That's what music can do for these children."