Chat – Teaching Students with Diagnosed Disabilities
Cathy Hirata, California
cathyh (usa) For tonight, let’s agree to set political correctness aside in order to be able to talk openly.
SandyUSA Go for it!
Barbara G (USA) yes
cathyh (usa) Neil’s recent post referenced students with undiagnosed disabilities. It is very important to understand how different his situation is, from what I am exploring tonight. Neil dealt with the incorrectly diagnosed, the undiagnosed or the loosely ‘labeled’ student. His work was about causing behavioral shifts. Tonight’s discussion is about students with clinically diagnosed disabilities, their parents, and my experiences in teaching them.
As many of you know, I am the parent of a child with special needs. Some of you know my daughter Lindy, who is a SM teacher, she is severely hearing-impaired. Currently 23 of my students, about 1/4 of my studio, are students with various diagnosed disabilities. At one point I had 31 students.
Although I have tried, I have never successfully had a special needs student in a shared lesson. Some started in shared and then moved to private…. However, that does not mean that students with disabilities cannot be in shared lessons; many are and are very successful. If you find out you have a student with a diagnosed disability who is currently in a shared lesson and it’s going well, please do not change things. If you do, the long term effect will be very negative. My students are all private because they require one on one attention with no distraction…..
You may be surprised at the number of people who have some form of disability. Realistically, everyone has some form of learning disability. In addition, you will have many parents who know that something is amiss, but have not yet taken the steps to look into the problem… many of whom are relying on the school system to diagnose and “deal with” their child.
The most important thing to remember is that a student with special needs does not lack intelligence. In fact, these students more commonly have an above average IQ…. “Disabilities and low IQ do not go hand in hand, and that misconception is the stigma attached to having a disability.” Many students have multiple disorders or disabilities. What you teach these students will affect every area of their lives, what makes these students different is the way in which they learn.
There are two main areas of concern when working in this area, both equally important:
- the curriculum; and
- the most delicate — the parents…..
It’s imperative that you understand how parents of special needs children think and are sympathetic to what they are going through. We all just want our children to be well-adjusted and have a good life without being made fun of by other children (which does happen). For parents, it is devastating to find out that something is wrong or different with their child. Fear is a powerful emotion, and these parents are afraid. This is a life experience you have to go through in order to completely understand.
We go through what I call a “grieving process” — stages of denial, guilt, and anger just as someone who has gone through death. Some of us become over protective, some are embarrassed and resent their child. The ones who pass through the grieving process realize that they need to raise strong independent children who understand or work with their disability and can deal with it in everyday life not allowing it to inhibit their growth as an individual. This is very difficult for some parents. In some cases, you may have one supportive parent and one that is not supportive or even resentful. Often times an overprotective well-meaning parent will interfere in class causing more trouble than not. You need to be sympathetic to this, and work with the parent by allowing them to see the results and more importantly see that they can trust you. Because the parent is cutting some apron strings here, be patient. If you don’t, the parent will resent you.
NEVER suggest to a parent that their child needs some kind of special class and NEVER talk about a child’s disability in the child’s presence. When I started working in this area, the one thing that struck me was that more often than not parents would not tell me about their child’s disability. In fact, many would lie. Why? Because many were told by traditional teachers that it is impossible for a child with a disability to learn to play the piano. They were hoping to “sneak” them in.
On the other hand, parents who have evolved from grieving will call, spilling their souls saying that they read about SM and were wondering if I thought it would be good for their child who has autism, aspergers etc. I learned very quickly how to work with parents. Parents are already sensitive enough. A parent of a disabled child is fearful and therefore extremely sensitive to the point of walking out on you during an FIS because they’ve become embarrassed and don’t understand their child’s behavior. This has happened to me more than once and is usually because the parent has not taken the proper steps to have their child diagnosed because they themselves are in denial.
It is usually obvious when you meet a child, especially after 2-3 lessons that something is different. I let it go and evaluate how things progress. After a month, I always re-evaluate with my parents to see how things are going. By then the parent has gained enough trust that I can usually ask a question such as “So how is school going?” or “Do you like reading in school?”. This is a neutral question and parents are always willing to share positive experiences.
But sometimes, they will say, “well, she can’t copy directions from the board” or “she’s in testing right now for her hearing”, or “we have had some reading issues” or they will tell me that their child is dyslexic etc. Sometimes they will say, “Did you notice something?”. My response is always the same. “The more you can share with me about how your child learns, the better teacher I can be for your child.” This usually opens up a conversation, but it’s one you have to be very careful of. Your timing has to be right.
The unique design of SM allows us to teach many children and adults with special needs. It is the perfect environment for these students, and parents feel secure because their children are learning in the same fashion as all other children. Interestingly enough, how we go about it is not much different from teaching children without disabilities. Breaking down patterns into smaller portions, teaching smaller quantities each week… some can learn more arrangements than others, or by introducing partial patterns way in advance of when needed so the student is well prepared–all the same.
What you may need to do is break down a pattern a lot further than Neil had originally presented it. In other words, think differently and be creative while staying within the parameters of the curriculum. I have never omitted anything from the program. What changes is how each student learns, their ability to play musically, their ability to read, and how we communicate with them.
Not understanding how any child learns (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) is the greatest mistake a parent AND a teacher can make. It is not our job as teachers to diagnose or look for disabilities in our students. It is our job to understand how students learn so the student can achieve the greatest results possible from the program.
Teachers and society notoriously focus on the “disability” of the student rather than the “ability” of the student. As Neil has stated, a “learning difficulty” is usually a methodological one that affects both special needs and typical students as well as students with physical limitations. Methodological issues can only be solved if the teacher understands how the student learns and is willing to adjust his/her way of teaching to accommodate the student. Unfortunately, this is not the norm in public schools.
It is also an unfortunate side effect of the public school system that society has placed “norms” on many of these children. Because of it, expectations are often limited to what books, developmental charts and society states. Once placed in “special ed” classes these students follow a course of learning that frequently limits their exposure, and many are told on a regular basis that they cannot do something because of their disability. Their parents believe it and they believe it, and many times they are not even given the opportunity to try.
Again, NOT a conversation to have with a parent. However, the knowledge you gain will assist you in teaching every student better, not just students with special needs.
Breaking ground is nothing new to Simply Music, and the flexibility of this program allows us the opportunity to mold the program to each student’s individual needs and “learning ability” and applies to ALL students diagnosed and undiagnosed.
More on this to come…but for now I’d like to share experiences I’ve had and suggestions on what to try with students diagnosed with neurological, physical and emotional disorders.
If a parent calls and tells you they have an autistic child, you should ask if the child is hi-functioning or low functioning. This will give you an idea of their behavior, how much your student might retain, how willing he/she will be to work with you etc.
- Literal thinking
- Social and behavioral issues
- Many do not speak and/or do not like to be touched
- Some have short-term memory issues, needing things repeated frequently
- Many will not look directly at you, and some will not remember you until they remember
- Think in pictures.
Suggestions for teaching:
- Avoid using words with double meanings. You will know because the student will shut down. For example, I cannot say the word “RIGHT”. My students don’t know if I mean RH, go to the right, look to the right or if they’re correct.
- When you make a mistake, it is best to re-start what you were teaching. That way when the student replays the lesson in their mind, they will get a clear picture of what to do.
- Ask permission before touching hands. If this is an issue, close the keyboard and have them imitate you.
- A positive environment and positive reinforcement is the best way to get an autistic child to respond. Most love to play, are very intelligent, highly creative, and love to watch the video and imitate Neil.
CAPD: Central Auditory Processing Disorder
(also called low auditory discrimination) is the most difficult disorder I have worked with so far and the largest single group of students I currently have (6). CAPD is not deafness, although some children like my daughter, have both. It is usually found in students who have problems following verbal directions. People with CAPD cannot process the information they hear in the same way as others because their ears and brain do not fully cooperate with each other. The brain struggles to correctly interpret what is being said.
CAPD is often confused with ADHD. Some children have both.
- Many have extremely low self-esteem and self-confidence
- Under certain circumstances may confuse the wording and/or the meaning of sentences
- Need to have small portions of instructions given and then repeated.
- Parents who are unaware that their children have CAPD or a hearing impairment will often say something like “You have to repeat things over and over to him, but eventually he gets it.”
- Often go home from lessons tired due to the amount of concentration it takes to comprehend what you are saying.
Suggestions for teaching:
- Be very very patient with these students.
- If they come to class tired, be aware that their ability to concentrate will be very low making it even more difficult for them to comprehend and remember as well as have a successful lesson.
- Ask them to repeat instructions back to you. Keep repeating them aloud until the directions are complete.
- Have the student look at you when you are speaking.
- Work in a quiet location.
- Use simple, expressive sentences.
- Speak slowly and enunciate clearly
- Give very small amounts each week, and be prepared for the student to forget what they just learned during class as soon as they walk out the door. This is a big source of frustration for the student and the parent.
- Shorten the lesson time in the beginning if you think necessary.
- Everything needs to be positive! That does not mean allowing the student to lose self-control or discipline, it does mean making sure that students understand that mistakes are ok and often result in beautiful creations.
- Parental assistance is an absolute necessity at home. It is best if the parent can learn right along with the child. Explain everything to the parent while teaching the parent how to work with their child.
- You should be aware that allowing the child to teach the parent might not always work, resulting in a “failure” for the child. The “coaching” conversation is very helpful here.
- Be Generative – You will have to teach these students how to repeat directions back to you. This will take the student a while and is worth a 5-minute review at the end of a lesson. Make sure the student truly understands and is not just copying what you are saying.
Piano can be very confusing to these students for a number of reasons. You may find yourself spending weeks on Night Storm. Why? Many of these students also suffer from dyslexia, a visual tracking disorder, or ADHD and are easily confused when things change.
Your first challenge will be getting the student to be able to put their middle finger on middle C. If unguided, you will notice the student will default to the Dreams position and place their middle finger on E almost every time (this is a visual issue). Knowing something is wrong, they will juggle their hands back and forth across the keys to try and locate the right spot.
If this is the case, explain the following step to the parent first. Then, have the student fold all fingers down except the middle one and place just the middle finger on the C. Push down C to hear it; then have them unfold their fingers and begin to play. Repeat the process after the tailpiece to realign the fingers, all the while having the student explain to you what they are doing (not much different from how we teach everyone).
Placement of Notes in the back of the book: Parents have told me that children with CAPD do not like disorder. It bothers them when things are out of place or moved around, or if they are in a large crowd. They need quiet and consistency. I have one student who does not like to have things moved in his room or have his sheets changed to a different color. It confuses him.
When you write your homework notes, be as consistent as possible in how you do so even use the same pen color to help lessen the frustration of the student at home.
Dimension: The piano is a confusing instrument. Up, Down, Right, Left all run in several directions and elevations. If you remove the visual and sound of the keyboard, the students are better off and can focus on their fingers. In other words, have the student play on the table – master their patterns, then move them to the keypad – master their patterns; then move to the piano.
The deaf community is very close-knit and frequently not open up to outside contact. If you are fortunate enough to have a child that is hearing impaired, deaf or a student that comes from a family in which a member is deaf, you need to be aware of some things.
- Hearing impaired and deaf individuals can be extremely sensitive to sound. High range pitches can be very painful to them. This is something to remember if you are teaching on an acoustic piano, especially a grand.
- Many hearing impaired individuals, like my daughter, cannot locate where a sound is coming from. This can be frightening in unfamiliar surroundings.
Suggestions for teaching:
- Be very very patient with these students.
- You might ask the student if they prefer the top down. Depending on the degree of hearing loss, the deaf can hear by feeling or sensing sound.
- If you have a student who is a lip reader, have the student look at you, speak slowly and enunciate your words.
Visual Tracking Disorders
SM is an excellent program for this disorder. It gets the student away from the page. Tracking words is a learned behavior. Somewhere along the line, people with this disorder did not learn how to track words in sentence form and cannot remember or process what they just read. This is a nightmare for reading music, SM is the perfect solution.
Be aware of the keyboard and that you may have to teach these students as suggested for CAPD.
I have had 7 dyslexic students. Surprisingly enough most of my dyslexic students work right at the piano.
Suggestions for teaching:
- Confusion sets in when reading begins and the ledger is too small. You can purchase large manuscript paper, or if that is still too small have the parent buy a wide ruled spiral bound notebook.
- Have the student write out their rhythm tracks on the individual lines and the individual spaces. This works great for little kids whose fine motor skills are not the best yet.
- Use a large dry erase board in class, kids love them. You might suggest that the parent buy one for home.
I’ve had one blind student and one visually impaired student (blind in one eye). For the blind, obviously SM becomes much more hands on. The student will use their hands to navigate around the piano. Visually impaired students sometimes work better with their eyes closed, as their peripheral vision on one side is gone and they have no depth perception.
Suggestions for teaching:
- Teach your student to use the black keys as a guide.
- To center the student at the piano, use Neil’s suggestion of having the student place their right hand at their belly button, and moving it forward to find middle C.
I have one student with this disorder. For him it is a chemical imbalance in the brain. He is one of the nicest kids I have ever met and has been my student for 2 years. However, put in a stressful situation, Mike (a different name) is self-destructive often causing himself moderate injury. To give you an example, one day he had a bad bruise on his forehead. When I questioned what happened he said, “Oh you know me; I lost control at school and got mad at myself so I slammed my head into the cement.”
I have had some deep conversations with this now 10 year old about his difficulties. He is fully aware of them and knows that he has to learn how to cope. He is a well-loved child who has amazing parents who are very supportive of him. His mom never interferes during class, relinquishing complete control to me. In the early stages, we would conference frequently.
When he first started, it was in a shared lesson of 6. It was not successful because there was an immediate competition between him and the other boys. He constantly tried to show off, which inevitably ended up in a self-destructive emotional outburst. He would hit himself while saying horribly hurtful things about himself and frightening the other students. He had crossed a line he could not come back from.
I learned quickly to watch for signs of frustration–his eyes would dilate, he would stop talking, tense up, make grunting noises, clench his fists, hit the piano, and verbally punish himself. It was tough at first, and if I pushed him in any way, he would only get worse. Sometimes if I took a break it would make things worse. Mike had to learn patience and give himself permission to make mistakes. I had to learn how to properly deal with his outbursts while keeping my other students calm.
The best way to handle an episode was to get down on my knees making sure he was taller than I was and in a very stern voice say, “Mike, look at me and give me your hands. You need to look at me right now.” He wouldn’t, so I would sit on the floor, take his hands in mine and say “Mike you need to listen to me right now and look at me. You’re a great kid. Have I have ever lied to you?” He would shake his head “no”….
I would say “I am your teacher and I would never lie to you. I know what you’re capable of and wouldn’t ask you to do anything I didn’t think you could do. You just need to give yourself the chance to learn. OK?” Calmer, he would crack an embarrassed smile, apologize and shake hands or hug me and it would be over.
You might think that this is an episode of claiming territory, but it is not. What is wrong with this child is very serious. But don’t be fooled either, special needs children are just as capable of claiming territory and causing trouble as anyone else.
His mom never interfered and was grateful after class. We all decided together that Mike was better in a private lesson because we needed each other’s full attention with no distraction. He has not had an outburst in close to a year, is now in Level 4, Reading Rhythm and his goal is to learn Dvorak’s Largo.
These students typically move very slowly and often forget most of what you teach them. Give very small doses each week and try teaching them in a similar fashion to those with CAPD. They will need parental assistance at home in remembering to practice, filling in their playlist and watching the video.
Physical Limitations/Fibromyalgia/Fine Motor Skill Disorders
It really upsets me when I hear a parent say that a piano teacher has told them their child cannot play properly or even at all because they have an injury to their hand or arm. I have a few students with physical limitations — Paralysis, webbed fingers, fingers that don’t bend due to breakage, fibromyalgia and fine motor skill disorders, and one adult whose left arm was reconstructed by micro-surgery after it was crushed. The bones from the elbow down are all nylon and she has neurological difficulty getting the arm to respond. She laughs about it because the left hand is usually behind the right when she plays. It is difficult for her to get them accurately together because the nerves and brain don’t quite connect, which is why she is taking classes.
With regard to fine motor skill disorder students, other than extremely loose fingers, they play pretty much the same as everyone else. However, writing skills are usually weak and parents are looking to strengthen that by having them play piano.
One student’s left arm was partially paralyzed. She played fine with the right hand and focused primarily on it, she did what she could with the left.
I have had one elderly student with Parkinson’s. The best way for him to play was to place his wrists on the keyboard. Not good form but it stopped the shaking. The other thing that worked was to have the student place one hand on the other or you can place your hand on their wrist. Bringing a sense of reality to the hand, the shaking usually stopped.
Reading Music – This is a challenge for some, particularly the dyslexic.
For some students, you can gradually reduce the size of the ledger paper… for others, they may have to keep the larger size. When reading, you might have the student place a small ruler under the individual rows of notes, isolating them so they can see them clearer.
My autistic students have had no difficulty with reading.
Fluidity/Musicality – In all honesty, this is the least of my concerns. I have students that play beautifully and some that play choppy. To me it is more important that the student gain the ability to play period. The long-term neurological benefit they derive from piano far outweighs their musicality on a few pieces.
So, If you look carefully at everything I’ve said tonight and compare it to things you do with “normal” students, you will notice that there is not much of a difference. I have literally watched students blossom musically and personally over the last 3 1/ 2 years. It is very rewarding to know that we can offer so much to these students. Their self-esteem flourishes and they are very proud of their accomplishments.
One mom attributed SM lessons to lifting her son’s self-confidence so much that he went from failing in school to pulling straight A’s not only once, but twice. On top of that, he took the summer off because he was offered a job as a camp counselor in training.
Many parents are just in the beginning stages of understanding how their child learns. Some do not even know exactly what the issues are yet and are afraid of what is to come. As Neil would say, “Simply Music is learning a way of learning how to play the piano.” These children are learning a way of learning everything.
I went through that pretty fast, does anyone have any questions?
Carol Bishop Do you set up conferences with the parents when the child is not there?
cathyh (usa) I usually call them so we can talk openly.
Carol Bishop Thanks. I’m dealing with some students who are currently being tested.
Crystal H (CAN) I taught a dyslexic student flute lessons for 5 years.
cathyh (usa) Did you find you taught her pretty much the same as your other students crystal?
Crystal H (CAN) Although I knew she was dyslexic, I pretty much had to “wing it”, and learned by observing her reactions and progress. You were right on describing my five years with her…..she went from being a failing student to top of her class, and is in university pre-med!
cathyh (usa) that’s great crystal
Barbara G (USA) I have a student that the mother says has to learn his own way. He does seem to learn differently.
cathyh (usa) hmmm any idea what she means Barbara?
Barbara G (USA) He is easily distracted in lessons. The mother says she cannot make him play at home… He has to do it himself.
cathyh (usa) Barbara, is he in a shared or private lesson?
Barbara G (USA) private
cathyh (usa) That’s good Barbara. You won’t know what’s going on unless she has student has been diagnosed, but you can pick up clues, how is he in class with you?
Barbara G (USA) focused for awhile, and then it is as if he is overloaded…he is 9
cathyh (usa) Try some of the suggestions under CAPD and see is any of it works for you. Barbara, if mom is saying her son has to “find his own way” that tells me a lot. I hope it works out for you.
Carol Bishop I don’t know if this is “legal, ” but sometimes I interject a game to help them relax a little.
cathyh (usa) I don’t do games, but I know that if I have a student who’s very nervous, I introduce my therapy dog…Jake! I wouldn’t recommend it, but Jake’s been trained to do this kind of thing and it really breaks the ice.
Laurie / USA As a parent of a special needs child, I for one don’t want people to tiptoe around me. But I understand they may be trying to ascertain where I am with regard to my child’s diagnosis.
cathyh (usa) I don’t think we are tiptoeing around anyone, and as far as the parent’s you’re speaking about they are the accepting ones that I was referring to.
Laurie / USA I just don’t think we should assume that all parents have had a difficult or grieving experience and that the subject of the disability is a difficult one for them. I truly am not trying to be difficult, it’s just that I have always felt that a particular picture of the parent has been painted.
Crystal H (CAN) I find it useful to be reminded that some parents “may” have difficulty accepting a condition.
Laurie / USA I totally agree, Crystal. Do I sound argumentative?
Crystal H (CAN) not argumentative, open opinions are important
cathyh (usa) Not argumentative Laurie but I’m talking about parents whom I’ve seen this side of. If you go back and read I did say that there were parents who don’t come to me in this fashion.
Laurie / USA I guess to put my comments in a nutshell, be open to what the parent’s experience may have been, and proceed accordingly.
Crystal H (CAN) Agreed 🙂 To me, it helps me remember to be sensitive…I didn’t take Cathy’s comments to mean everyone.
Barbara G (USA) Cathy, if a child has autism, can they still start lessons around the same age as those without?
cathyh (usa) It depends on the student but usually yes.
Cherie R (Aus) When combining both hands, do you sometimes play as a duet playing one hand each together?
cathyh (usa) Do you mean with all students Cherie?
Cherie R (Aus) No, with an autistic student
cathyh (usa) You can do that Cherie, play it by ear and see what happens.
Sara F(Aus) My son is 14 – he is autistic but is still not ready to sit at the piano for more than about a minute. Every
child with autism is different.
cathyh (usa) That is true sara, and most people don’t realize the word autism itself comes in many different forms.
Crystal H (CAN) I have a feeling I may be asked to teach a 14 or 15 yr old who has a brain injury due to a tumor when he was 9….I’m not sure where I’d begin…with “tell me more” I guess.
cathyh (usa) I would just work with the student and see what comes of it, then go from there. you’ll know right away what will work and what you’ll have to modify
Cherie R (Aus) I have a 9 yr autistic son who really enjoys playing, but I wasn’t prepared for him to balk at the different (to him) concept of I IV & V instead of CEG in Jackson Blues.
cathyh (usa) Possibly or if you are teaching them, you may be giving them too much. I know a few autistic students that just like to come and play songs and learn only a tiny bit each week, their parents are ok with it
cathyh (usa) Neil and I are still working on some things that will probably be introduced in a later chat.