I’ve worked with students with special needs for several years now, both as a private voice teacher and as an artist in residence with Very Special Arts. (Very Special Arts is a non profit organization that provides arts instruction for students with special needs. Click here for more info.) I’ve worked with students with varying degrees of challenges. Some so mild that it took me months to figure out that they had a learning disability and some that were severely physically and mentally handicapped. However, the benefits of music instruction to students with special needs far outweigh any extra effort you must put in to make lessons accessible for them. Any effort that you put in will be payed back tenfold. Here are a few tips to help you tailor lessons to a student with special needs.
1. Know what you are dealing with.
It is important to know what disabilities the student has. One of the easiest ways to get this information is to ask the parent if the student has any disabilities at the initial interview. If they mention anything, try to get their input about the ways that their student learns best. Also, ask what things cause them the most trouble or bother them. (this is especially important with people with Autism or some other disabilities that may cause them to be sensitive to some sounds.)
Sometimes students don’t want to tell others about their disabilities because they don’t want to be labeled as different. You will avoid a lot of frustration if you find out about a problem early on. I had a student for over a year and a half and was really getting frustrated because I couldn’t seem to teach her the simplest concepts. I would teach something like note values over and over and the concepts didn’t seem to stick at all. I asked the student if she had a learning disability. She said that I should talk to her guidance counselor. I found out that she had Aspergers Syndrome. This is a form of autism that doesn’t affect the language development and cognitive development as much as other forms of autism. Some things it had been shown to affect though are visual-spatial perception, auditory perception, and or visual memory. This is probably why it was so frustrating to teach her to read music. Once I knew what I was dealing with though, I was able to change the way that I taught her. I created patterns to make it easier to memorize her songs, and made patterns to help her understand music reading better. She ended up attending solo and ensemble festival that year (in previous years she had been unable to) and received a second division rating (a huge achievment for her).
2. Learn about the strengths and weaknesses often exhibited.
Once you know what the disability is, spend a little time researching the strengths and weaknesses associated with the disability. Look for official websites that offer help for parents and students with that particular disability. Learn what the strengths are as well as the weaknesses. If you can tailor your teaching to their strengths you will make faster progress. If you know about the weaknesses, you can avoid using methods of teaching that would focus on those things. In my case, drawing pictures of the notes did little to help the student learn about how to read music. You may need to record the songs for the student to practice with, use more tactile methods of learning (making notes out of clay or drawing them in sand.) having the student clap the rhythms or sing while keeping a beat with their body.
3. Be patient, but not TOO patient.
Sometimes it takes students with special needs more time to learn things than other students. Be accepting of that, but at the same time, don’t allow the student to use their disability as an excuse or crutch for not improving. Try to create goals and time lines that are reachable, so you and the student will feel the excitement of reaching goals and seeing the student improve. Remind the student of how far they have come. Maybe say… wow a few months ago, you wouldn’t have been able to do X, Y or Z.
Many students with special needs find comfort in the familiar or routine. If you always do things in the same order, that is really helpful. For example, Warm-up, sight reading, music theory, and songs. Try to stick with a routine because changing the routine can be very distracting for some students with special needs. If for example, you always follow the routine I mentioned earleir and one week, you decide to skip one of them or add something new, this may really bother a student with special needs more than other students.
5. Say it, say it again and just when you think they have it, say it again.
I’ve often heard this saying, say it, say it again and just when you think they have it, say it again. This is applicable to teaching anyone anything, but it really comes in handy with some students with special needs. You may need to repeat yourself many times if you want something to stick. This depends on the student. Some students absorb information more quickly than others. It helps to find new and different ways to cover the same bits of information so it isn’t obvious that you are repeating the same information over and over.
Teaching students with special needs can be challenging and requires extra effort on the part of the teacher, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Seeing the joy in a students face when they finally grasp a concept or can sing or play a song correctly is very rewarding.