It used to be that if a family had a child with a disability, especially a mental disability, it was shameful and they were hidden away. Thankfully, that is no longer the case! Students who may not be able to be successful in sports or academics or even dance might have the capacity to do well in music.
All of us have a student who has been labeled with a disability that’s been determined via a medical diagnosis. However, they are a child, or a person, first. There are ten characteristics that Beth and Scott have observed that are helpful when teaching students of any disability.
1. Consistency – the words used in the studio should be the same as those used at home or school. Even the day and time of the lesson should be strictly kept. Making changes could provoke a meltdown. Consistency provides comfort for the child. From week to week, the lesson should be structured in the same manner.
Specifically for a child with autism, their world is built around details, routine, systems, and procedures. For example, parents often have to give the child a rundown of each day’s activity in preparation for the lesson day. The same approach should be used when anticipating events such as a recital or festival. When the child comes to the lesson, they should be greeted in the same manner each week, asked the same questions, given the same sort of instructions. If you forget what comes next, just ask the student. They will remember.
Beth suggests using pocket schedule cards that help you and the student keep track of what to do in what order. Most meltdowns occur in the “New Learning” category. Even giving simple instructions can cause frustration because they assume that the student understands the terminology and is even watching or listening to you.
2. Adaptability – we all have been through lots of pedagogy training and have a bag of tricks. These may be helpful, but we should also delve into practical tools available through the special needs resources. Beth recommends a resource called Boardmaker that provides visual schedules for special needs students.
It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the world of a special needs student. Many of them are seeing other specialists and attending therapy sessions that make their lives far different than fully-abled students. You can also look for ways to tap into their natural habits. Scott had a young student who made a ticking sound under her breath. At first it drove him crazy, but then he was able to utilize her rhythmic sounds to play with excellent rhythmic pulse.
3. Flexibility – not just in teaching methods, but also how you relate to children from the moment they walk into the room. Other children may be able to just shake off a bad day, but a special needs student will often dwell on the particular bad point in the day. You can’t ignore it, but should address it and then move on. You may end up with a meltdown anyway, but it will often be followed up by an apology letter.
Roll with the moment on how to handle each situation. Sometimes you have to get close and be firm. Many students with autism have hyper-sensitivity issues. A faint air conditioning sound in the background may be like a hurricane to him. Always end the lesson on a positive note.
4. Setting Expectations – students with disabilities in Scott’s studio have the same goals as those without. Beth said she programs all of her studio in the same recital – both those with and those without disabilities. Both sets of families need training to behave appropriately. Those with disabilities need a model of good behavior. She said that all of her disabled students are better practicers, come to lessons well-prepared, and have their recital pieces memorized first.
It’s important to communicate openly with those organizing and adjudicating at events when you include students with disabilities.
Patience – this is important not just because of all the issues involved, but because the process may take a long time. For one of Scott’s new college students, it took several weeks for her to consistently and quickly find the key D on the piano. Be patient with yourself because you will mess up. It takes time to understand the lingo. When parents talk with you, ask what they mean.
Sometimes as the teacher you have to get out of the process. Give the student time to think and work through things on their own. Sometimes medical needs also keep students from being able to attend lessons. Be patient with the whole family.
5. Compassion – the parents don’t want you to feel sorry for them. They want someone who is willing to just be with their child. Your willingness to work with them means a lot!
Be open with the parents when they inquire about lessons. “Sure, let’s give it a try. If you feel like it’s not working, or I feel like it’s not working, we can talk about it again.” Many times the parents have been so appreciative because no one else will work with their child. Beth shared about her first special needs student who had been turned away by 80 other teachers.
6. Sense of Humor – sometimes you have to just laugh about the unexpected things the kids do. Also have a sense of humor with yourself. The kids will be quick to point out the mistakes you make. Remember, the parents don’t expect you to be perfect. The things students blurt out are funny, but they are instructive about their perspective on what’s going on and whether your approach is effective.
Special needs students often take language very literally. A phrase like, “You crack me up” won’t make sense to them. You also find out a lot about the families from these students. Learn from all of it and keep looking for ways to grow.
7. Learn from Your Mistakes – visualize the student as being “normal” and yourself as the one with the disability who must learn how to function in their world. A lot of working with students initially will involve learning appropriate behavior in the lesson. One of Scott’s mistakes came when after teaching the student the appropriate lesson etiquette of “my turn” and “your turn” asked the student to do something without specifying “your turn.” The student wouldn’t do it. He wasn’t misbehaving. Quite the opposite, he was just following the protocol.
8. Lose the Ego – students with disabilities are not going to change for you. You have to give up the right to be “king” or “queen” in your studio. Remember that what you’re teaching these kids is not just music skills, but social skills and other life skills.
View the students disabilities as a gift that gives them specific skills and opportunities. Help them learn to see it that way and give them tools to capitalize on those strengths.
9. Have Fun – Beth said that she has learned more from teaching disabilities than anything else. Scott said he’s a better person because of it. Learning to work with them opens all sorts of doors and opportunities.
The session concluded with video clips of some of Scott’s and Beth’s students.
In addition to learning repertoire, Scott does lots of improvising with his students. He showed one clip of a blind student who is classified as a savant. He gave her a one-measure motive and then had her improvise on the spot. It was amazing!
Recommended Resource: Woodbine House Publishing