Issue with Child & Mother
Sharlene H., AU
I was wondering if anyone can offer any suggestions about a situation I have with a student please? This is a long email but I will start with the immediate issue and will post the details at the bottom in case you find you need them to answer my questions! Thank you so much for your time and support.
The little girl in question (E) is nearly 8 years of age and has been coming to lessons with me for over a year now. She is learning in a group with 2 other girls, one who joined just recently. The girl she has been with for a while is a year younger than her (although one might have thought it was the other way around – very different levels of emotional development) and they have become very good friends and see each other outside the lesson (the other girls grandmother acts as a surrogate grandmother for E because her parents work a lot.
The students have just started back this week after school holidays and E came in having not practiced at all in 3 weeks – the others did. The mother admitted the fact when she first arrived and I spoke to them about it, and to everyone. I informed them that I had decided to take a stronger approach in future with students who don’t practice because of some students earlier in the week and that if someone came to class without having practiced in future I would send them home without a lesson because it was not fair to the other students, and that I did not want to spend the time going over things they had already covered and should have practiced. I know that I overdid the speech about it a bit, but I did feel like I needed to finally draw the line as it has happened so many times over the past year. We had to go over one of the arrangements again because E didn’t remember and I re-emphasized to her that I did not want her to do this again and hold everyone else up and that she must practice (I realize this may have been a little too much and I should have left it completed after our conversation in the beginning). At that moment, the mother had left the room to take a work call (which she doesn’t usually do).
I received an email tonight from E’s mum in which is said that E cried after the lesson today saying she wants to stop piano, that she told her mother what I had said while she was out of the room and said she felt embarrassed. Her mother pointed out that I was correct, that she was holding others up but expressed her disappointment in me that I had brought the issue up again when she thought it was over at the beginning of the lesson (which is, of course, a very valid point!!)
The mother said she is not finding the lessons enjoyable (she should join the club!! ) because she feels she is having to learn alongside her daughter and she doesn’t want to learn to play the piano. SM seems to her to involve more effort on her behalf than she can muster – that she is happy to support E, attend the lessons and pay attention but that’s all. She said she thinks they would be more suited to a “drop off” lesson where her daughter learns the “boring way” (her words) so they don’t hold anyone up. Her concern is that to change to a more traditional way will be hard and E will hate it more. She asked if I have any experience of anyone who has dropped out and gone back to traditional ways of learning and how they have coped.
I have done quite a bit of work to build E’s self esteem in the classes, have tried to be clear about my expectations, although acknowledge that I have not ever sent her home or ceased teaching her when she didn’t practice (have not wanted to contribute to her low self esteem – see below). She has had a pretty good run most of this year (we had a bumpy start) but things have been slipping of late (not just over the holidays) and it seems that mum thinks all is ok if she “’fesses up” at the beginning.
I would really appreciate any feedback anyone can see I could give to the family with regard to her question, and what you might do in my situation. I would also appreciate any learning available for me regarding how I have handled things because I would love to learn from this situation for the future. Thanks so much.
E is an only child and has parents who work full time, and her mother appears to struggle with what she has on her plate. I have been overly lenient with the times that E has come to lessons having not practiced much (both E and her mother appear to struggle with self esteem issues and E uses – “I am not good enough”, “I’m hopeless” quite regularly as an attention seeking behaviour (mum does it too – “I’m a terrible mother” etc if E has not practiced). Actually, E is great and has a lot of potential if only she would practice but is not very good at taking responsibility for her actions (E will blame her mother for not remembering something if she has forgotten or accuse her mother of showing her the wrong thing – which I always pick up on and remind her that she is responsible for her own learning and mum is there to support her.) It appears there is often a battle of wills – both very strong personalities.
The girls are all in Level 3, have started their Accompaniment Program (slowly!) and have done several Arrangements but it has taken us a long time because E doesn’t practice as much and we keep going over things.
E’s mother has struggled with the lessons herself because she sat in a chair (despite my many requests for her to stand around the piano or be where she could see) and when it came time to do things that were off the videos, she has not understood and she and E become embroiled in a battle over how to play something. I have usually been as accommodating as I can but do at times get frustrated that she has not followed my recommendations to make sure she understands the instructions. She has said that she has found it increasingly difficult with things not on the video because she has no idea what is happening and cant help E when she gets stuck. They have a good relationship with one of the other families and do contact each other regularly for help.
Sheri R., California
I would definitely discourage them from going to traditional lessons with whatever powers of persuasion you have (just talk about the short-and long-term benefits of SM so there is a clear distinction in this mother’s mind of the completely different results her child will have).
You might want to call or meet with the mother and perhaps child too (away from the lesson) and talk about what they want out of lessons and have them hear you about what you expect of them to achieve that. Some parents need ideas of how to get their kids to practice without the battles. If they put practice in the category of brushing their teeth or going to school (non-negotiable activities) and really mean it the battles will be minimal. Does she offer her child rewards for doing the work without the attitude? I have attached a hand-out that another teacher wrote (I think I made some minimal changes to it) that is in a parent binder in my studio.
I don’t require parents to learn the songs–I encourage it but most of my parents aren’t learning and it seems their kids are doing as well as the ones whose parents are also learning. I think some teachers require parents to learn level one only so they can help at the beginning until their child is more comfortable with the process.
Perhaps you cannot give this little girl as many arrangements as you do to the rest of her class. The bottom line obviously is getting her mom to understand the importance of daily practice and she may just need some private time with you to get more in alignment. Over the years I have put calls in to parents to discuss how things were going and what my concerns were, etc. (After a long letter from me last week (about the only kind I know how to write!) a mom created a binder for her son that
is less overwhelming than the playlist and lists each day what his tasks are. I think it’s going to make a big difference for this kid–he’s been with me for about 4 years and is in Level 8–he is a great improviser so we had to think of something to keep him committed to doing all of his homework, not just his favorite stuff.)
I wish you luck in getting her more on the right page.
Kerry V., AU
Firstly, you are not alone with the experience you have clearly expressed to us. There are a few things which jumped out for me whilst reading this email.
One thing that is of highest regard with parents being in attendance is not only to understand what is happening to help the child at home, it is to do with the child feeling a sense of strength with their parent sitting and supporting them with their playing. Many children want to “play” for their parents/friends/family but to have an audience everyday is a great way to build self esteem and connection with the parent. The reading together time has probably stopped as the child can ‘do it on their own now’, the child is much more responsible for many more tasks etc at home and (especially) if the parent is busy working then there is no time for the child as they are running around doing the ‘chores’. Children want their parents full stop. They want to spend time with them, even if it seems to an outsider, abused, if the child is getting the parents attention then that pushes them on. They want to play in the same room as them, they want to talk to them, they just want to be with them, a sense of security that my parents are with me protecting me loving me.
I have found far too many times the difference between the parents who sit and listen and support their child at practice time to the ones who go off and do it themselves. The ones who sit with them as an enjoyable part of their day enjoy playing much longer and the relationship b/w them both is beautiful. The parents who tell the child to practice and then the child doesn’t practice the parent doesn’t understand why they have a difficult time with practice. It is because the parent is expecting the child to do something with out (what the child sees as) no support.
I hope I am explaining my way here clearly enough. Basically, if the parent actually participates in the learning/teaching at home then there are much fewer issues than the ones who demand practice but no (seemingly) support.
Another thing, you have admitted yourself that the conversation may have gone a little long and then bringing it up later may have been a bit much. Well, you learn from your mistakes and so now move on. But also remember that a way to have E understand even better IS to bring it up at a point of where she can see what it is she has created for herself.
Really Sharlene, all you have done here is bring up the fact that E is on a low in the Relationship graph and this is a perfect time to show the family how supportive you are in helping them understand where they are at and what you can ALL do about it so the can start climbing up. It hurst us too to bring up or stay with a sensitive issue but if this is the turning point for E then congratulations to you for being so strong and standing up for her to grow. E’s crying would upset you as it would her mother but know that this is the turning point for her growth if they allow it to be.
The next step is to talk to the family before/after their lesson and maybe even in class as this affects us ALL at any time. The mum sounds as if she is supportive of you but needs to understand the benefits of actually stopping and allowing her daughter to play in her company. Time and time again I tell my students it doesn’t matter if one or the other is wrong, the fact that they are talking about the music is actually helping them learn more about many things at the same time. One thing they are learning is communicating with each other. How brilliant is that!
It sounds like a group which will help support each other so a discussion about how you would help each other out may be helpful too. This is a Relationship graph conversation, perfect.
E does need to learn to take responsibility but she is only 8 and so is only learning about this stuff. The parents are still responsible and even if they take them to trad lessons E is going to go backward and never give music a go again until much later in life if she is lucky.
Sharlene, you are in a perfect position to help E with her self esteem by allowing the tears as you have helped her recognise in her pain that there is an issue to deal with, how do you deal with it is the question, not quitting. E doesn’t want to stop piano, she wants to not feel her inadequacies or be reminded that she is struggling for what ever reason. I have had children cry in my lessons and although my heart is breaking with theirs and I am ready to cry with them I still talk to them about the issue and the next day mum will ring or email to thank me and the child has shifted. The next lesson they are glowing and smiling and have practiced. But it is only after we have a really deep talk. and these talks and tears happen in the class time.
I appreciate your frustration with the lack of practice and private or group it is difficult to conduct lessons if people don’t make the commitment so this is a perfect opportunity for you to realise that (of which you have done) and learnt from it and move on.
E does have a bit to work with but you can do it with the open communication with all concerned you WILL see a tun in this child and she will no longer hold people back. She may become too fast for them. One alternative is to actually advise them as to HOW to practice. At first it will be all too much to revive all the songs so you will have them choose (say) three songs they want to strengthen plus the current projects plus the songs she plays (4’s or 5’s). Gradually have her build her playlist so it is not overwhelming and have mum with her. That will be the strongest point for E to continue to practice, if mum is with her. I have a few mums who pull up a chair, or lie on their child’s bed, have a cuppa and read while the child is playing. No input because they don’t know but gosh that child enjoys that time. I have other parents that are so involved that they play and even composed their own songs and they are not enrolled as students. I have mums that sit away from their child and are able to tell them if they played the wrong note. i have parents who haven’t a clue but they all stop and take the time with their child at practice time.
Support E’s mum by reminding her that she doesn’t have to discect and know every part of every song, she only needs to know how to pick up an error or congratulate E for playing so well, or for being committed to her practice. Remind her that she is doing a great job under the circumstances but is not doing any body any favours by announcing she is not a good mother. You know how it all goes, I know you and know you will do a great job in speaking to this family. Have your confidence back, breath and allow. Offer your support as they learn to practice together, E taking on more responsibility while mum learns to stop and sit with her, gosh she only has one child, how easy is that 🙂
I apologize too for the lengthy response but hope you can get the gist of what I am sharing.
All the best and keep in touch as to how they go. Either way, congratulate yourself for the great job you are doing.
Cindy B., Illinois
Kerry has done such a good job in answering your email I debated even adding to it. I decided to add this: 3 weeks of no practicing can create problems, but they can be minor if you help the child and parent see that when there’s video support, all they have to do is to look at the playlist, highlight the songs that need to be refreshed, and then refresh 1 at a time until they’re all back, not even practicing the highlighted songs that they haven’t gotten back to. To tell you the truth, I’ve had similar things happen. One instance, a girl that the month of July vacation meant no practicing, so that when it was time to return to lessons, she’d forgotten a great deal, having only had about 5 months of lessons at that point. I nearly lost her because I was so flabbergasted and handled the situation very poorly, but she’s still with me over a year later after a serious relationship conversation on top of everything.
On the other hand, I started a lesson with 5 children, ages 6-9, in September and lost 1 girl fairly early because she makes the decisions in the home, and will probably be losing another because after 6 weeks, there is no practice time scheduled into her day, grandma hasn’t done her part at home, and the poor girl can’t even play dreams yet!
After a year, E is definitely not one who should be quitting or transferring. Mom needs to be relieved of the burden of “being the teacher” at home, but to pick up the responsibility of supporting and organizing the practice time. Rather than transferring to a new teacher, the parent needs to transfer some responsibility to the child!