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.
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:
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.
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.