Music research project supports Cork children with Down Syndrome

COLETTE SHERIDAN catches up with Dr Eva McMullan of UCC’s Music Department to talk about the MINdDS research project, which works with children with Down Syndrome
Music research project supports Cork children with Down Syndrome

The MINdDS (Music as an Intervention in the Neurological development of Children with Down Syndrome)Website was launched recently in University College. Celebrating the occasion  were  UCC President Professor John O'Halloran, Dr. Eva McMullan-Glossop and Professor Yvonne Nolan. Picture: Tomas Tyner, UCC.

CELEBRATING ability is at the core of a research project involving music that is helping children with Down Syndrome to develop learning skills.

The MINdDS research project (Music as an Intervention in the Neurological development of children with Down Syndrome) is based at UCC and funded by the College of Medicine and Health. It was launched in March, 2019, but then Covid happened.

The new website, https://www.ucc.ie/en/anatomy/mindds/ was launched recently by President O’John O’Halloran.

The UCC President said: “The MINdDS project reflects the inter-disciplinary collaborations are now being harnessed within the University to ensure excellence in research.

“Bringing the fields of psychology and neuroscience together with music, this wonderful work aims to nurture and celebrate all children’s ability, by exploring the impact of a music intervention in the lives of children with Down Syndrome.

“This much-needed research will not only resonate on a national level, but also have an impact internationally. Here at UCC, I am delighted to support Dr Eve McMullan’s important and progressive research that will encourage further investigation into the vital role music has in the lives of children of all abilities.”

Dr McMullan, a lecturer at UCC’s department of music, is leading the project, which evolved from the successful training programme, ‘Music4Children’ set up by her in 2011 with primary school teacher, Padraig Wallace.

The programme celebrates learning music through fun and creativity taking its inspiration from contrasting cultures, musical genres and, most importantly, the children themselves. The course encourages confidence building, independent thinking, and playful interaction, making learning music a positive experience.

The aims of the project are to understand the behavioural, neural and hormonal correlates associated with musical training, and to establish whether it can be used as a possible intervention for children with Down Syndrome.

Dr. Eva McMullan-Glossop. Picture: Tomas Tyner, UCC.
Dr. Eva McMullan-Glossop. Picture: Tomas Tyner, UCC.

The eight-week intervention involves answering questionnaires on music engagement at the start and conclusion of the study, as well as engagement with a selection of online videos created specifically for the project.

Children also attend an online class facilitated by Dr McMullan and Padraig Wallace once a week for the duration of the project. Online cognitive tests as well as saliva and hair samples are collected at the start of the study and at its conclusion. And, ‘most importantly, it’s about ‘having fun’, says Dr McMullan.

When she was approached by Down Syndrome Cork about music therapy sessions, she said: “I’m not a music therapist, however, I was very excited to work with these children. Initially I was booked to do music classes with a group of children from Down Syndrome Cork for six weeks and that was four or five years ago now. It took on a life of its own.”

Dr McMullan says feedback from the parents about the music programme “was hugely positive” and they encouraged the research project.

“What’s really lovely from my point of view is that the project came from interaction with the parents. It was music education, but through fun and games. In many ways, I go through as much material with these children as I would with typically developing children.”

To teach rhythm, Dr McMullan uses puppets. To teach music notes, “we devise little characters that live in the music house”, they help to create the names of the notes. Each of them has a little story and the children love it”.

“When you’re working with children with Down Syndrome, repetition, a structure and routine are very important.”

Social interaction is all part of the learning experience. Fun and laughter are encouraged as that releases oxytocin, leading to social bonding, “One of the parents said the benefits they’d seen from the music classes included helping with attention, turn taking and language development.”

The beauty of it is that these outcomes came through active research. Nobody had an agenda going into the classes, I just love teaching. But I have learned so much as an educator from working with the group ,which has fed into other areas of my work. It has made me a better educator.”

Having been relaunched, the current programme involves 30 children. As well as children with Down Syndrome aged between 4-12 years, there are typically developing children aged 4-8.

Dr McMullan says she adores the work. “I love working with children. It’s amazing what you can learn from them. This is just the very start for this research. This project is going to grow and grow.

Dr. Eva McMullan-Glossop, UCC President Professor John O'Halloran, Professor Yvonne Nolan and Bereniece Riedewald. Photo By Tomas Tyner, UCC.
Dr. Eva McMullan-Glossop, UCC President Professor John O'Halloran, Professor Yvonne Nolan and Bereniece Riedewald. Photo By Tomas Tyner, UCC.

It’s a very exciting time exploring possibilities. The research will help tighten up how we deliver the music programme to this cohort, but also to typically developing children. So, both groups are benefitting.”

Alison Wilson, of Down Syndrome Cork, says that she and her colleagues never imagined “when we started with Eva and the puppets at Music4Children, the amazing impact it would have on our kids.

“The amount of benefits these sessions have on auditory processing, language skills, speech, shared experience with parents, attention building, turn taking, literacy skills and, most of all, fun, is astounding.”

Sharon Forde, mother of Mia, says her daughter loves going to her music class and “is so proud to be part of it. She really enjoys the structure and warm up song and especially the puppets. It has given her so many opportunities to build her confidence, such as speaking in front of the group and singing and signing in front of an audience.”

In association with the Department of Music UCC, Dr McMullan is also facilitating free music classes for children with Down Syndrome aged 2-4 years.

Interested parents can get in touch with Down Syndrome Cork. Call 021 4872680 or log onto downsyndromecork.ie.

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