Voices Together: Music Therapy and Autism in Elementary Schools (2016-2017)


Voices Together is a specialized music therapy program designed to help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities speak, communicate, express their thoughts, feelings, needs and connect with others socially. The purpose of this project is to develop and evaluate a specialized teacher-training model—The Voices Together Teacher Toolbox (VT3)—for special-education classrooms in North Carolina public schools.

Project Description                                                                                       

Since it was first developed over eight years ago, the Voices Together program model has consistently gained remarkable outcomes in seven school districts in North Carolina. This interactive and motivating program is an educational model that is music-based. Because of its engaging and spontaneous elements, students with developmental disabilities are able to unlock language, problem-solve, socially connect with others and communicate their most basic needs while increasing their ability to learn. With these skills, other areas in their lives begin to improve; they become more active participants in their classroom, their family and their community. Research by previous Bass Connections teams has explored program effectiveness, and improvements have been found in children’s communication patterns.

Voices Together is extremely popular among special-education classroom teachers. However, those same teachers are struggling to reach children who have critical challenges in the area of communication and social/emotional learning. We have found a growing commitment from teachers to respond to the needs of children with developmental disabilities in innovative ways, but schools typically lack the resources and teachers are searching for new ways to help students with developmental disabilities learn. VT3 offers teachers a set of techniques and methods that can be integrated into their weekly classroom curriculum, expanding the program experience and potentially increasing student outcomes. The VT3 model was developed with input from consultants and teachers, but it has yet to be implemented or fully evaluated. Piloting and evaluating this specialized curriculum for classrooms could launch the first step in replication and national expansion.

Student team members spent the majority of the fall semester learning about content areas related to the research project, including autism, music therapy, teacher professional development, research design and data collection. This was accomplished through readings, in-class presentations from team leaders and external experts (e.g., guest speakers from the Duke Center for Autism & Brain Development) and off-site observations of Voices Together music therapy groups.

Students’ primary project for the semester was the development of an annotated bibliography and an expanded literature review on a topic of their choosing. The team obtained research approval from Duke and the school system, finalized a study design, selected or developed data collection instruments and began data collection in Voices Together classrooms.

This spring, as data collection continues, the students have started coding and entering baseline data.

Anticipated Outcomes

This project has the potential to produce research findings that inform a refined VT3 program model that is suited for broader implementation; a research framework to gather data for the current evaluation, likely including video coding and measurement development; internal presentations on the team process and products; and a scholarly article on the program and research findings.


Fall 2016 – Spring 2017

Team Outcomes to Date

Voices Together: Music Therapy and Autism in Elementary Schools (Kate Branch, Lawrence Lee, Paulina Paras, Maximilian Westerkam)

Project website


Voices Together: Music Therapy and Autism in Elementary Schools

This Team in the News

Students Present Their Research and Learn from Each Other at the Bass Connections Showcase

From Durham to Brazil, Students Share Research Stories

Music Therapy: Tuned in to Autism

The Group That Sings Together Grows Together

See photos of this team on Flickr

See earlier related team, Voices Together: Music Therapy and Autism in Elementary Schools (2015-2016).

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Franca Alphin, School of Medicine - Community & Family Medicine*
Geri Dawson, School of Medicine - Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Megan Gray, Social Science Research Institute*
Jan Riggsbee, Trinity - Program in Education
Lorrie Schmid, Social Science Research Institute*
Jessica Sperling Smokoski, Social Science Research Institute*

Undergraduate Team Members

Kate Branch
Larry Lee, Global Health (AB), Neuroscience (BS2)
Paulina Paras, Neuroscience (AB)
Max Westerkam, Computer Science (BS)

Community Team Members

Yasmine White, Voices Together

* denotes team leader