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Piano Lesson Planning for Neurodivergent Students

When it comes to teaching piano students with special needs, teachers can be very nervous. Well, good news: I’m here to help! Sometimes a little added structure to your lesson planning can make all the difference for neurodivergent piano students.

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.

Oftentimes, setting clear goals and expectations along with structured, visible lesson planning tools can make or break a piano lesson with a neurodivergent student.

The content in this post was originally published in May 2015, March 2016, July 2017 and September 2018. It was edited and updated with new content in July 2022.

A Little Clarity Goes a Long Way

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.

Setting Progress Goals

Try to meet the student where they are and help them reach their potential – whatever that means for them – while cultivating a love and appreciation for music. Just like you would with any other student.

Depending on the degree of your student’s special needs, a particular level of accomplishment may or may not be possible. Make sure you understand what the parents expect their child to get out of piano lessons so you can bring them back to reality if needed.

Setting Practice Expectations

Piano students with special needs will often need more help at home, especially in the beginning stages. When you first meet with the parents, make sure they are ready to participate in their child’s daily practice.

To make the lesson and practice goals really clear, try this structured assignment sheet.

Piano Lesson Plan Assignments for Neurodivergent Students
Click on the image to download the pdf.

It doesn’t matter if the parents know anything about piano or music, just that they’re supportive and involved in regular practice sessions at home.

Lesson Planning for Piano Students with Special Needs

A consistent structure and routine can make or break your lessons with some students. Children with ASD in particular might have a strong preference for routine and procedure, but almost all piano students with special needs will thrive when there is a very clear structure.

Your neurotypical students probably just pick up on this routine as a matter of course. Neurodivergent students, however, can often benefit from an explicit discussion and labelling of the segments of the lesson.

Lesson Focus Aid

This lesson focus aid is a simple, straightforward tool I originally made for a student of mine who had a diagnosis of ADD and Asperger syndrome. Having a visual representation like this which both the student and teacher can see throughout the lesson is very valuable because it only takes a quick glance for your student to know what’s coming next and how far they are through the lesson.

I laminated the aid and glued it to a folded piece of card at the top so I could slot it under the piano lid. This position makes it clearly visible to both me and the student, as it’s very important that the student can see it throughout the lesson.

As we move through the lesson, I cross off each goal with a dry erase marker. If we finish our list and have time left over, my student can pick their choice of fun activity such as a favourite music learning app or improvisation activity.

This helps some neurodivergent students feel comfortable and less distracted by wondering what the plan is.

Visual Lesson Plan Cards

If you want to change the lesson structure from week to week, a good alternative is this set of Visual Lesson Plan Cards.

If you’re part of the amazing Vibrant Music Teaching membership program, you can download the Visual Lesson Plan Cards right now from the VMT Printable Library. Not a member, or still undecided? What are you waiting for?! Learn more and join the movement here.

I glued magnet strips to the back so I can just pop them onto a little magnetic whiteboard I keep at the piano. You could also tape them to the piano or the wall, or use velcro strips if you have that kind of display board.

A simple solo lesson structure might look something like this:

And here’s a longer lesson plan for a buddy lesson:

Group music lesson plan

(Note: The piano/theory magnets are what I use when one student will be working with me while the other does independent music theory work on the iPad or in their workbook.)

As with the first lesson focus aid from this article, it’s important that the cards are visible throughout the whole lesson so both you and your neurodivergent student knows where you are in the lesson and what is coming next.

To make it even more effective, have your student move the card to the other side of the board each time you finish an activity. That micro-movement breaks up the sections with a physical action, which can be especially effective for students with ADHD who find it difficult to transition from one activity to the next.

Structured Assignment Sheet

The same assignment sheet mentioned above can pull dual-duty by setting practice expectations while also providing structure during the lesson. The lesson section at the top is particularly helpful if your piano student with special needs has trouble staying on task throughout the lesson.

Click on the image to download the pdf.

I fill in the top section with stickers as we go through the lesson. If they get all their stickers, the rest of the lesson is for their choice of activity (oftentimes Piano Maestro on the iPad 🙂)

What’s your biggest challenge when goal setting or lesson planning for neurodivergent Piano students?

Share your hits and misses in the comments below.

For more resources on teaching music lessons to students who have special needs, visit the Special Needs section of our Planning Lessons hub page.

29 thoughts on “Piano Lesson Planning for Neurodivergent Students”

  1. After reading this, I think one of my students may have dyslexia. He constantly confuses RH and LH, reads music very slowly, and mixes up notes. I’ve never dealt with a student who has had this much of a struggle with RH and LH though. He’s 9 years old, been with me for almost 3 years now, and still struggles with it just as much as he did when he started lessons. His mom has talked to me before about him being a “slow learner,” but has never told me he was dyslexic. Unfortunately, I’m discovering this too late to really do much about it. He’s moving away, so he only has one more lesson with me. I would however, love any advice on helping students who constantly struggle with RH and LH (for future reference).

    Reply
    • One thing that can help with L-R issues is highlighting the two staves (you could do it all through the music, but I would start with just marking to the left of the staves): blue for RH (like the sky, which is high), and green for LH (like the grass, which is low). Then give them similar coloured bracelets or elastics to wear on their wrists.

      Reply
    • If it’s a constant struggle, I might just come up with a coping mechanism for the time being such as writing/colouring the back of a hand, or wearing coloured wristbands. I think for the most part (from my unqualified experience) this works out in time.

      Reply
  2. This is an excellent article, thank you so much! I have three special needs students: two on the autism spectrum and the third whom I thought was autistic might actually be ADHD, so the advice above is extremely useful! Thanks again!
    Juanita

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  3. I found this fun game to help with rh, lh, etc. from Meijer’s but here it is on Amazon. Sorry for the long link address!

    https://www.amazon.com/LCR-Left-Center-RightTM-Dice/dp/B003I64OT6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1500853250&sr=8-2&keywords=left+center+right+dice+game+in+tin

    I play this with little kids and we invite a parent or sibling in to join as it’s for 3 or more players. The game is fun and even exciting so the reinforcement of r and l seems to be quietly absorbed! I even bought a second game of this so kids could check it out of my game library to take home and play!

    Reply
  4. Thank you for this article! I have a new student with ADHD among other physical issues, and her older sister I suspect is on the Autism spectrum. You have some very helpful suggestions. I have been using the story method with the little girl’s subject of choice-cats! Which happens to be my favorite thing next to music too, so we connect well there 🙂 We do lots of high and low sound stories using kittens and big dogs or tigers or other low sounding animals. I think it is helping her keep high and low straight much better.

    Reply
  5. My son was just diagnosed with ASD, Level 1, which used to be called Asperger’s. So yes, Asperger’s falls under the Spectrum now, but the clinician will gives varying levels it seems. Also, ASD persons have a very difficult time with auditory processing of directions, so visual prompts and directions should be given as much as possible…which is a very difficult transition in parenting after 11 years of giving verbal directions! Thanks for your post! I am starting a student with dyslexia and the color coding is going to be our go-to!

    Reply
  6. today a girl with nonverbal autism had her very first piano and singing class from me today and when I was teaching her the vocal warmup and to drop her jaw to get sound out better she had a huge meltdown because she can not get her voice out and I tried to get her in deep pressure and she was holding both my hands tightly I said to her nicely I have to have my hands for piano and she just dropped on the floor and was hurting herself and at this point I got emotional and started crying the mother had to run to the store and I called her she got stuck in traffic and thankfully I have the piano in the same room as a therapy room and I have like gymnastic mats so children can play on them when they get their break but I managed to lay the girl down on the mats and get her deep pressure and her mom came and she had the wheelchair of the girl with restraints on it she did not want to be strapped in and her meltdown got worse the girl puked and she was making louder noises and they had to leave and I said to the mom that I would pray for the girl when they left I was in tears so I played piano and sang the beauty and the beast end reprise from broadway and that was like the prayer because the girl loves that song from broadway but next time what can I do to avoid a meltdown the meltdown was hard to watch can I give her like a longer break or what

    Reply
    • That’s intense Olga. I’m sorry you and your student had that experience. If you’re going to continue though I think the parent should always be there and you should ask their advice about what works for their child. You’ll learn to notice the warning signs if you do continue and hopefully how to avoid them.

      Reply
  7. I have a question I would like to teach singing and piano to a girl with nonverbal autism can do you think she will be able to do it and do you teach singing

    Reply
    • No I don’t teach singing. And that’s honestly such a general question, there’s no way to know until you try. Just meet with her and try some very basic things and see how it goes.

      Reply
  8. Hello yes the mother anisa did stay in the room and I got the girl with autism aurora to tell me on my iPad I have for her to get me to tell me how she feels without siblings and she touched on the word alone and the mother does not have a husband I knew that from the very start she told me anyway aurora goes to a normal school in a normal class she does things easier but she has a friend who does not have autism and her name is arista they are both the same age nine and are in the same class and they are also neighbors and arista really wanted to learn piano so the both mothers talked anisa talked with anita and right now every day in the summer aurora is getting piano class and this past Monday anisa told me about arista and I said that I could give aurora and arista piano at the same time like a group class and anisa said that she would say that to anita and she said sure so this is the first week me working with arista I worked with aurora since January and since Monday anisa has stayed in the room she gives arista the rides to the class and back home after that and what I have been doing is to teach the girls from 1pm to 5pm 1pm to 2pm I play them the piano and they have to dance around the room with the tempo like stacato fast and you know from 2pm to 3pm they have like a quiz I play them the piano and they have to like answer the letters or tempo and aurora does it with the iPad from 3pm to 4pm they get piano I sit in the middle of them then from 4pm to 5pm they have singing and now aurora has improved because I explained to her nicely what I mean by dropping the jaw to get sound out better and aurora now this week she has been singing words she still can not get her voice out to communicate and everything has been going well

    Reply
  9. Hello the girl I am teaching singing and piano to she does not communicate at all I am trying to get her to sing but she just can not can you help me out I am sad for her

    Reply
  10. Hi I want to teach my 15 year old daughter with mild autism piano I am a pianist and I want to teach her but I don’t know how to start now my daughter does tap dance jazz dance native dance rumba dance and ballet dance she loves dance and we also tried piano with another lady when my daughter was 5 and had just gotten diagnosed but she had a lot of meltdowns with new people and we stopped but now she wants to return to doing piano and I would like to teach her and she is also in choir at school and she is a great singer but I would like you to help me out on how I can start and she can read notes very well the only thing she has trouble with is she has meltdowns in public situations when she gets overstimulated and it’s too much now I don’t have an email so reply’ back to me on here please

    Reply
    • Mista a lot of the kids who I teach piano are also in choir at their school and the meltdowns in public I do feel you and if you get stares in public when your daughter has meltdowns ignore the people I taught a boy named Michael caulford who died because he had shaken baby syndrome and he was completely nonverbal in a wheelchair and made vocalization sounds to talk and his foster parents mentioned they got a lot of stares often when they were in the like in the mall or outside and nicola I would like you to please watch this documentary on Michael it’s on YouTube just search up shaken baby syndrome Michael caulford and the documentary is on YouTube I don’t know if you have any studnents you teach who are like Michael but it’s very powerful and has a lot of info

      Reply
  11. Nicola I am a piano teacher and I teach kids who are special and many kids with autism come to me there is one girl in particular who has autism and has been progressing very nice she is 20 and she has been with me since she was 2 her improvement is very nice do you think I could refer her and the parents to a professional lady who is a pianist in our area for my student to be taught by the woman and actually my student goes to the Wilfred Laurie university here in Kitchener and the woman who I tell you about works at the university I’m going to see my student tomorrow and I will let you know what the parents and the student say

    Reply
  12. Hi, are there any recommendations of piano teachers in the San Francisco area for my 8 year old daughter who has developmental delays. It would be good if the individual is patient and has teaching experience with special needs children. My email is yh4152001@yahoo.com. Would appreciate any help on this matter. Thanks!

    Reply
  13. I appreciated this article so much. My son has ADHD and has been in piano for almost 3 years now. He still can not read notes, other than middle C. We have tried memorizing all the acronyms (which he has down) but he still can not look at a note on a sheet of music and quickly know where to find it on the keyboard. My husband feels it might be a waste of money to continue with lessons since he hasn’t progressed in reading music however he is AMAZING at playing by ear (can play a song just by simply hearing it). He has 50% hearing loss in both ears and has hearing aids, so I tell him that music is his super power, but I get frustrated when I feel like we have made no progress. I am so torn on whether to continue with forcing lessons when reading music seems beyond his ability. Would love your thoughts.

    Reply
  14. Hi so I want to get my five year old daughter who has autism into piano and she got diagnosed in January and we tried putting her in jazz dance but it was horrible she was overwhelmd by everything and just was crying so she is not doing it anymore but we do have a piano at our house because my older daughter who is eight has been playing the piano a long time and my younger daughter with autism shows a lot of interest in piano and usually just plays randomly but shows special interest in the middle C and I think she shows interest in specifically middle C is because it’s not to loud and not too quiet so it’s the perfect sound and my older daughter’s teacher Does not teach special needs kids or I don’t know but I want to find a piano teacher for kids with autism and special needs in the area of la quinta or cathedral in palm desert California

    Reply

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