Music therapy practices and processes with foster care youth: Formulating an approach to clinical work

Ever wondered what support children receive in foster care?  Music therapy can be one of the therapies supporting children in foster care! Often these children have experienced trauma that they have trouble verbally expressing, but may be able to express themselves through music. In this article, the researcher tells a story of John, a thirteen year old boy in foster care.

When living with his biological parents, John witnessed violence and drug use. When he met the music therapist, he expressed frustration with the new “rules” he experienced at his multiple placements and repeated traumas. These experiences often results in him acting out and receiving a new foster care placement. He was referred to music therapy because of the need for intensive therapy to receive a final placement.

When John began music therapy he was initially resistant, but showed interest in improvising on percussion instruments. The music therapist used this interest to facilitate deep breathing exercises and teach positive mantras (such as “breathe in the good, breathe out the bad”) accompanied by live, relaxing music for practical use inside his chaotic home. Once he mastered this calming technique, the therapist led John in emotion based improvisation. That is, he would “play” an emotion on a preferred instrument and they would listen to the recording to discuss why/how his created music sounded like the chosen emotion. As music therapy progressed, John decreased his emotional and reactionary outbursts at home and at school.

The therapist continued with John and began creating a “music journal” so John could express himself and learn appropriate coping skills. This journal included improvisations and created songs. John and the music therapist would listen to his creations and discuss their meaning, the emotions, and what John was trying to express. After he improved in music therapy and at home, John learned he would be moving back in with his biological mother. Family was incorporated into music therapy in order to continue the stability and expression he found in music therapy and to build upon his improved relationships.

For John, music therapy provided stability and an opportunity to express himself. He improved his relationships in his life and learned to cope with his emotions through music instead of pushing them down inside himself. It should be noted that when working with such a sensitive client and situation, music therapists often seek supervision (or professional support) in order to maintain healthy clinical work and avoid burnout. For more information about how music therapy can help you, your child, or your family, please visit our website or


Jessica S. Fletcher, MM, MT-BC

Zanders, M. (2015). Music therapy practices and processes with foster care youth: Formulating an approach to clinical work. Music Therapy Perspectives, 33(2), 97-107.