Student with Down Syndrome
Found in: Special Needs & Learning Differences
Karen D., Canada
Does anyone have any tips on teaching a child with Down Syndrome?
I have an 11-year-old female student with Down Syndrome. She knows her finger numbers and can do five steps of sound, but she has difficulty remembering how to start the songs (we’ve only done Dreams Come True and Night Storm). She loves Justin Bieber, so her last few lessons were mostly her singing along while I played accompaniment to some of his hits.
At her last lesson, she did seem to know the first sentence of Dreams. She would go to the piano and play it, but not when I asked her to play that song specifically.
She will improvise on black keys. If she improvises on white keys, I play C, F, G, C broken octaves along with her.
I will greatly appreciate hearing your experiences and tips with teaching students with Down Syndrome.
Pamela M., Canada
I too teach an 11-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. He plays all songs from Foundation 1 with RH quite well. I give him both vocal and physical reminders for song position. For example, with Jackson Blues, I call out 1 4 5 or C F G and he goes right to it 80% of the time. For other songs, I gently put his hands where they need to be and give him clues from the piano. “End of group of two black notes, start of group of 3” etc. LH he does pretty well with too but hands together can be a struggle. It really is just repetition and chunking up songs that has seemed to work. I will also play Amazing Grace, Chester, Night Storm, etc and have him sing, and then I have him play and I sing. This actually helps him to get the rhythms a little better. I could go on and on!
Laurie Richards, Nebraska
This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as I love teaching students with special needs and I have a son with Down syndrome. I have a lot to say but will try to keep my comments concise!
Most importantly, although your question is a natural one, I encourage you to try and approach special needs students from a different perspective – as a regular student with a lot of potential and abilities to work with. Granted, for students with a developmental delay (regardless of the specific diagnosis), there are a few generalizations that are probably true:
1) They likely will need much repetition of new concepts
2) Strong support at home is typically needed to be successful
3) You need to be patient and willing to throw typical expectations out the window if they are unrealistic
Beyond that, these lovely people are so different in their physical, mental, and emotional capabilities. You just need to get to know them and talk to the parents to determine what will help them be most successful.
My son is 22 now and hasn’t been in lessons for several years, but he completed Levels 1 – 3 very successfully and learned all the major chords in Acc 1. He’s fairly high functioning but has behavior challenges sometimes. He is extremely expressive and always adds his own ‘stamp’ to everything he plays. He still remembers several of the songs.
In contrast, I currently have a 9-year-old autistic student who is pretty low-functioning. He doesn’t talk, self-stims a LOT (hand-flapping, head movements) and is kind of unpredictable. We do 15-minute lessons. The first several lessons were just coming in for a few minutes and familiarizing him with a new environment. He’d sit at the piano if he tolerated it, but would soon become agitated, so they would leave. Once he was comfortable, we started working at the piano. After 6 months, I’m still working with him to find the 2 groups of black notes and ‘follow the leader’ (imitate what I do) so I can teach him. The simple facts that he likes coming to piano, sometimes imitates me, makes eye contact, and occasionally is willing to find the groups of black notes – these are huge for him. Sometimes he is agitated and bangs the piano or yanks my hoop earrings out. Then we immediately end the lesson. He always loves when I play a song he knows, so I regularly ask his parents what he’s been listening to. Sometimes it’s a pop song, last week it was Twinkle Twinkle. His whole face lit up when I pushed his fingers down to play Twinkle. I just try to connect with him so he’ll trust me.
Celeste, who is in the Special Circumstances video, is also autistic and nonverbal. She’s been in lessons for years and has almost completed the Development levels. She reads music very confidently and plays beautifully.
So much for concise. My main point is that everyone is so different, and beyond the patience and repetition and support probably needed, you just need to get to know the student and what works for him or her, regardless of ability.
Leeanne I., Australia
I haven’t taught a student with Down Syndrome but I do have a student with obvious learning difficulties. He too had a lot of trouble remembering Dreams and even finding the C to start. I wasn’t told he had any problems but discovered this for myself during the course of lessons. At one lesson I brought out my piano mat to have a bit of fun with. It’s a plastic mat with piano keys that you play with your feet. When my student played Dreams with his feet he said he totally got it! Maybe you could try that.