When it comes to teaching piano students with special needs – teachers can be very nervous. You truly want to be all inclusive and spread music to every child, but maybe you feel you don’t have the expertise to teach these kids.
Well, good news! I’m here to help. And as long as you’re willing to keep trying to adapt, change, and learn you too can successfully teach piano students with special needs.
I don’t claim to be any kind of a special needs expert. But I do have experience working with piano students with special needs – such as ASD, down syndrome, ADHD and dyslexia – and I’ve learned a lot from those students.
The first step you need to take is to understand what these terms mean for us as piano teachers.
Understanding Special Needs Diagnoses
Every single piano student with special needs (even with the same diagnosis) is going to be unique. There is no one-size-fits-all model.
Having said that, it is very useful to understand the diagnoses and what they mean for the kid sitting in front of you.
These explanations are by no means exhaustive but are simply an overview of the symptoms that are most relevant to piano teachers. I strongly recommend you look up your student’s diagnosis to get a better understanding.
Dyslexia is one of the most common diagnoses found in classrooms today, although I don’t think many of us are aware just how varied it can be.
Piano students with dyslexia may have some of the following characteristics:
- Delayed speech development in early childhood and sometimes mixing up or mispronouncing words
- Visual disturbances when reading – describing words as moving around or blurring
- Difficulty following a sequence of directions
- Slow and poor handwriting skills
- Frequent daydreaming or zoning out of conversations
- Confusing left/right and up/down
- Doesn’t work well with time pressures or competitive tasks
- Learns better through hands-on, experiential teaching
Although you might expect all of the reading issues of dyslexia to carry through to music reading, that’s not always the case. Pay special attention to whether your piano student with dyslexia confuses directions such as left/right and up/down – this is very important for music reading and good to be aware of.
Children with down syndrome have physical, as well as intellectual challenges. Here’s a few to bare in mind when teaching piano:
- “Floppy” joints or low muscle tone
- Short fingers
- Impulsive behavior
- Short attention span
- Preference for visual and language learning
- Difficulty with numeracy
The tendency towards visual learning is good to note, as colour coding may be a very useful tool for students with down syndrome. More on this in the teaching strategies section.
ASD stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder, and now officially (to the best of my knowledge) encompasses what was formerly called Asperger’s. Some kids may still come to you with an Asperger’s diagnosis but most younger kids will have now been diagnosed with ASD.
In general, an ASD diagnosis means the child might display some of the following attributes:
- Delayed speech development and preferring not to speak or speak in shorter sentences
- Not responding to their name being called and avoiding eye-contact
- Not picking up on sarcasm or implications – taking what people say very literally
- Behaviour that may seem rude due to not picking up on social conventions
- Highly specific interests in particular subjects and disinterest in areas outside this specialty
- Strong preference for following routines
- Sensory processing issues such as difficulty dealing with certain textures, too much brightness or too many stimuli
If you have a piano student with ASD I would pay particular attention to your student’s communication, preference for routine, and any sensory processing issues as you get to know him. These characteristics are very useful to be aware of when planning for lessons.
For more on the ASD diagnosis (and diagnoses in general), listen to this podcast with Lydia Meem. Truly excellent advice for piano teachers from a clinical psychologist.
ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Many people understand this to mean just “wriggly” but it’s actually a lot more layered and nuanced than that.
Some of the symptoms of ADHD that are most relevant to piano teachers include:
- Trouble paying attention
- Trouble sitting still (even for a very short time)
- Impulsivity, acting before thinking
- Appearing forgetful and misplacing things regularly
- Not sticking with tasks or following through to completion
- Appearing not to be listening
- Interrupting conversations
- Difficulty with organisation
If the child you’re teaching does have a strong hyperactivity component of ADHD you’ll need to plan carefully not to keep him sitting for more than a few minutes at a time. You should also pay attention to what type of language is most effective to get him to follow instructions. (More on this in the teaching strategies below.)
Teaching Strategies for Piano Students with Special Needs
These three teaching strategies are great ones to have in your toolkit when you’re teaching piano students with special needs. Keeping these strategies in mind should help you to adapt your teaching to a variety of student needs.
1. Colour Coding
Colour can be a great aid for piano students with special needs. This won’t be suitable for every student of course, but when it is a good fit I can make all the difference.
Try colour coding:
- Notes on the staff
- Piano keys
- Segments of the lesson (more on this below)
- Note directions such as up, down, same
- Intervals such as steps and skips
Really colour can be applied anywhere you need to highlight a difference that your student is having trouble seeing.
Colour coding is especially useful for students with down syndrome and dyslexia, although many students with ASD and ADHD will also benefit from the use of colour.
Be aware that for some piano students with special needs, colour could actually be more of a hindrance than a help. Students with ASD or ADHD in particular might be distracted by too many colours. In fact, sometimes black and white method books are best so that there are minimal distractions on the page.
Pay attention to your students needs and observe how he learns best.
If you’re having trouble connecting and engaging with your student, storytelling and analogies can be great teaching tools.
Bring your student into the story by choosing a topic that interests him. For example, if your piano student with ADHD is a big fan of trains, and you need him to get to the end of the piece without stopping – you might explain to him how it’s like a train running on a schedule. The train needs to arrive at its destination on time and not get side tracked along the way.
Some method books that take a story-based approach may be also be useful for piano students with special needs. Wunderkeys, Piano Safari and Tales of a Musical Journey all do a wonderful job of capturing a students’ imagination using stories.
As with the use of colour coding, storytelling may or may not be a good fit for your student. Some kiddos will simply find the story distracting. Try it out in your lessons and see if your student is less or more focused on the task at hand using this approach.
3. Clear Directions
Almost all students can benefit from clear directions of course, however piano students with special needs will do best with extremely plain instructions.
When you’re teaching a child with special needs you need to learn to remove all the frills and superfluous words from your speech. This is trickier than it sounds but it’s worth developing this skill.
For instance, instead of saying:
“OK Jenny, that was lovely, thank you. Now let’s give that boogie piece a go, how did practice go with that one?”
(Look at all those extra words that hold no real value there!)
Try cutting it down to:
“Now play the Boogie no.3 please.”
“Play Boogie no.3”
This is especially hard to do as being polite is so ingrained in us. It feels rough and unfeeling to give our directions so plainly – but it may be just what your student needs.
Students with ASD and ADHD are especially prone to being distracted by our extraneous words. It takes too much translating work to take what you said, and turn it into what you want him to do next.
So try being as clear and direct (even verging on blunt) as possible. It could make all the difference for your student’s success at the piano.
Thembi Shears went into more detail on this in her fantastic interview with Tim Topham here. This is especially valuable if you have students with ASD.
Lesson Planning for Piano Students with Special Needs
Structure and routine can make or break your lessons with some students. Children with ASD might have a strong preference for routine and procedure, but almost all piano students with special needs will thrive when there is a transparent structure.
Your other students probably just pick up on this routine as a matter of course. Students with special needs however can benefit from an explicit discussion and labelling of the segments of the lesson.
Lesson Focus Aid
The lesson focus aid is a tool that I originally made for a student of mine who had a diagnosis of ADD and Asperger’s. Having a visual representation like this that both the student and teacher can see throughout the lesson is very valuable.
With this tool, your student will know what’s coming next, as well as how far he is through the lesson. This is very important so that he can feel comfortable, and is not distracted by wondering what the plan is.
Setting Goals & Expectations
Depending on the degree of your student’s special needs, any level of accomplishment may or may not be possible. As with any student, try to meet the student where he’s at and help him reach his potential – whatever that means for him – while cultivating a love and appreciation for music.
I think it’s of utmost importance when working with piano students with special needs, that you have open and honest communication with the parents from the outset. Parents will often know far more than us about how their child learns, and the best ways to work with him to help him succeed.
Piano students with special needs will often need more help at home, especially in the beginning stages. Make sure that the piano parents are ready to participate. It doesn’t matter if they know anything about piano or music of course, just that they’re involved and supportive at home.
To make the lesson and practice goals really clear, try this assignment sheet. The lesson section at the top is particularly helpful if your piano student with special needs has trouble staying on task throughout the lesson.
Keep It Positive
First and foremost, my main goal for every student’s piano lesson is that he has a positive learning experience. This holds doubly true for piano students with special needs.
School might be a struggle. Kids with special needs often have very low self-esteem and I know what music can do for them to improve their confidence.
Piano lessons can also be extremely enriching and rewarding for the parents of the student with special needs. Seeing their child get up and perform in front of a crowd is special for any parent, but moments like this can be even more important when the rest of life might be a challenge.
So keep striving to connect with your piano students with special needs – and teach in the way they can learn best. Keep learning, exploring and getting out of your teaching comfort zone.
The reward is worth the effort.
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