To be completely honest, I am a ‘just’ piano teacher. I am not an expert in childhood development nor would I ever claim to be. But as the mom of a child with some extra needs, I have learned firsthand about the importance of childhood development, how music can help, and how it can be hard to for a child with extra needs to accomplish certain tasks in their music lessons. After working with my son’s therapists, I couldn’t help but pick up a few things that I found to be helpful for him and for my music lessons. If you have a chance to take some occupational therapy training, or even speak with an occupational therapist, I highly recommend it. Having an awareness of special needs, learning disabilities, and other childhood struggles can assist your teaching, your student, and their music. Here are a few things to think about.
Posture and muscle tone. Do you have that one student that just can’t ever seem to sit up straight? No matter how much you remind them, they struggle with good playing posture? This may be a child with low muscle tone. They may be perfectly healthy, but just have muscles that aren’t quite strong enough to help them sit or stand with good posture. You’ll typically see them slouch, lean on one hand, or “W” sit on the floor.
Body awareness. Some children struggle with knowing where there body is in space. They may be constantly in motion because they don’t feel settled, comfortable with themselves, or they may lean on you constantly, run in to you, or crash on things to help them ‘feel’ where they are.
Crossing midline. A child that has trouble crossing midline will have trouble crossing their hands on the piano, may struggle with turning pages of music, or may hold their instrument funny. Imagine a straight line running down your body, from your nose straight down to the floor. Now pretend that each body part must stay on its ‘own’ side – your left hand can’t cross the line to reach something that’s on the right side, and vice versa. Now try playing your instrument, reaching something on a high shelf, even scratching an itch on the opposite side. Frustrating?
Using both hands. My son used to only be able to play with one hand at a time. Learning any instrument takes two hands, so while it may be difficult for a young child to learn to use both hands to play, it is also helpful for their development. This child may be able to play piano hands separately, but struggle when playing both parts at once. It could be due to low muscle tone – they can only use one hand because the other needs to prop them up – or it could be caused by any number of factors. Gentle and patient reminders can be helpful.
Two hands doing different things. This is something we adults tend to take for granted, but is critical to playing music. This child may be able to play contrary piano scales, where the hands are using the same fingers at the same time, but may not be able to play parallel scales, where the same note is played in each hand but using different fingers. Or picture playing the guitar – you need to form chords with one hand and strum or pick with the other.
Motor planning. Motor planning is the body’s ability to know how to accomplish a task and then carry it out. For example, a child with motor planning difficulties may have trouble simply walking up the steps. They have to stop and think about each part of the process (I lift my right leg, move it towards the step, put it down, pull myself up, lift my left leg….etc), while the rest of us simply do it because our bodies know how. Can you see how this could translate into difficulty making music? This child may have to stop and think about all the things their bodies have to do to make every single note. While it takes extra time and patience, it is absolutely worth it. These children can learn, and they benefit from the muscle memory that comes along with playing music. Practice and repetition helps, the challenge is making it fun so the student sticks with it long enough to get it.
Speech. A child with a speech delay may have trouble singing, they may have trouble with air production needed to blow into a horn, and they may have trouble with embouchure. But language and music are closely connected, and the benefits from learning an instrument or singing may help a child with a speech delay improve their speech and language, as well. I recently read of a valedictorian who rapped his graduation speech. In speaking, he stuttered terribly, but in music, the stutter disappeared.
How does music help? We have all heard of the Mozart effect, where music helps create extra and stronger pathways in the brain. Music stimulates different areas of the brain, including language, emotion, math, etc. It can reinforce skills that children learn in school, in therapy, and at home. It allows children to express themselves, which becomes especially important to children who are frustrated at how their body works or who cannot speak like their peers. Most of all, making music builds self-confidence and joy, something every child and adult needs.
As the mom of a child with special considerations, I would encourage you to embrace teaching children and adults with extra or special needs. Their progress may be slower, they may require lots of extra patience and as a teacher, you may need to think outside the box to help them acquire skills that come easily for developmentally typical children. But just as children with special needs help their parents become better parents, teachers of children with special needs can become better teachers from their extra special students. We learn patience, grace, and to appreciate our children for who they are, not what they can or can’t do. We learn how to teach more clearly, demonstrate more concretely, and think more creatively. Incorporating a little sense of humor and a lot of fun goes a long way, too.
The work may be challenging, but the rewards are amazing.
Do you teach a child with extra or special needs? What have you learned from them?