Dealing with mother wanting teacher to be more strict

Heidi M., Canada

I need some help or suggestions form those of you who have experience in teaching autistic children. I started recently with my first autistic student (6-year-old boy), and I really love him. He can be quite fun and funny at times! He is verbal and from the start he was willing to come to the piano. There was some resistance in the last two classes, perhaps because of him struggling to understand and do the next concept, so I tried to follow the SM Gateway approach to dealing with this by connecting with him, showing him acceptance, and sometimes just playing the piano and singing for him, not pushing him when he is not ready, and letting him sometimes beat a mini hand drum when I play. That seems to help some, and I think it will just take time for him to trust me and get comfortable with the situation.

But his mother, who is usually in the next room except at the end of class, feels that I should be far more strict with him and she wants to be in class the next two times to make him understand what is expected of him. She said he always listens to her and she knows what lines to use. Apparently he has a very high need for structure.

I welcome her feedback, of course, but there seems to be a big difference between the approach she wants and what is recommended in the Gateway program. I am normally used to and comfortable teaching young students even younger than this boy, but definitely things are more challenging here. I like his mom but I sense she wants results much faster. Any suggestions on how I can talk with her and how to deal with this?

Karen N., Connecticut

I’ve dealt with this type of situation several times, so I really understand where you’re coming from. You can begin by telling the mom that teaching music may be a bit different from teaching academics or working on behavior and listening. However, you can also tell her that you are open to using a structured schedule within the music lesson. Tell the mom the Gateway program is about establishing trust with the teacher, about discovering music as expression and a vehicle that can be used for fun, communication, self-confidence, and personality development. If the mom dictates behavior, that defeats the whole purpose of your connecting with her son to develop a new bond.

Since you have a good working relationship with the mom, ask her if she’d be okay with your trying a schedule for the half hour, with some reward at the end, even 5 minutes of play time. List everything you’re going to do in the lesson, and go over it with the student, so he knows what’s coming and what to expect. You can include a 5-minute break after two activities so he gets to play drum or sing.

I think this would help the mom feel more comfortable, since you’re adding a structured component (the schedule) into the lesson. Kids like this like to know what to expect within the lesson, since they are so vulnerable to being overwhelmed by too much information, and afraid they will become overloaded.

Susan M., Canada

It will take time and it sounds like you’ve done great getting things going. I think it’s important that you speak with mom and be honest in that you need time to establish the relationship, and ask if she is willing to let you try on your own, if that’s what you think is best. There are a lot of great things happening if you are connecting with him through music.

Personally, I would find it hard to continue with the same arrangement if she is listening in the next room and worrying or wanting to jump in, and the student may behave differently knowing she’s there too. I think it’s important to ensure that you and mom are aligned in expectations and be clear that connecting with him is priority, promising her that you’ll ask her for help if you feel you’re not making that connection.

Are there visuals that you can use to help move from one activity or to assist when he resists? Like a “First Then” type of board? Or pictures of activities that you can lay out for him since he likes structure?