Special Needs & Learning Differences

Student unable to follow instruction?

Kevin M., California

I have had a few students lately who have struggled with learning. I have broken everything down into the smallest steps etc. and have great support from their parents, but they still are struggling. I did a small test with both students (one in Level 2 and the second Level 5) and discovered the same thing… I asked a simple question, like take your RH finger 2 and put it on the C above middle C. (one of a few examples of simple questions and directions I asked them to follow).  In each case neither student could do it. They either confused Rh or LH, or finger numbers or notes themselves or all 3…both to the astonishment of their moms.

The only way I could get it correct was to ask them to repeat each instruction after me, once they had all 3 instructions vocalized they could get it right most times. This issue (if I can call it that) seems to be what is making it a little more difficult for them to learn in class and at home with the video. Has anyone else run into this same issue, and if so, did you have any ideas that really seemed to help them out? If possible it would be nice to know the reason why both kids seem to really want to please or get things right, and I wonder if that somehow drives this.

Teri D., Iowa

Yes, I also have students who have this problem.

Years ago I learned that every simple task can be broken down into an unlimited number of small tasks that are understood in our culture. Sometimes students have not developmentally accomplished the small skills needed to accomplish this task.

Yes, I attempt to break down the skill into smaller parts but unfortunately, I am not always able to identify the missing skill at first.

For my students, I have found that only having the student work with one hand at a time frequently lets me see the problem differently. Yes, many of my students also confuse the right and left hand. Then to slowly add in just the beginning of the pattern in the other hand seems to work well

Patti P., Hawaii

Your seemingly simple request actually has five steps.

    1. Find your right hand – something students are often not clear on when they are young
    2. Find finger 2 (they don’t need to know this anywhere but in piano class)
    3. Find middle C
    4. Find the C above that
    5. This involves knowing which direction is “above” on the piano.

Not every student is going to be quick to pick up these concepts – which hand? Finger numbers? What does C look like? Which way is up? How far away do I find the next C up? There are actually a number of potential confusions here.

Of course, we would expect this to be known by Levels 2 & 5.

In addition, some children have trouble holding a string of instructions in their mind. I think you have hit on an excellent way to improve their understanding (and your understanding of what they have absorbed) by asking them to repeat the instructions back, but I would lead up to that by breaking the instructions down step by step first, allowing them time to process each step. Once you know that they understand each step of the instruction, you can combine a couple and see if they can verbalized that back to you & follow.

I have a granddaughter with learning disabilities, and this is what we have had to do with her many times. She is very smart, but processing verbal instructions is a challenge for her. She needs more time and smaller chunks of instruction.

Maureen K., California

Follow-up question:
Do you keep students who have trouble following instructions in a shared lesson? If so, do you ever let the student move forward without knowing the song well, so as not to hold the other students back?

I have one student with autism who enjoys being with the other children. He hears melodies well by ear, but has trouble sticking with the fingering I show them. I worry about doing this. But his mother and I cannot find a free time in common to move him to private–so it may be a choice between quitting and keeping in a group, where he won’t learn the songs as well as the other children.


You’re definitely NOT alone in the fact that students get confused by up/down, left/right, finger numbers, high/low, top/bottom or following instructions and listening to instructions. It happened to me today and with a girl last week. A student of mine had been continuously confused by finger numbers. She, in particular, had a lot of issues with fingering. She felt compelled to change the fingering for many songs (RH of I’ll Be There comes to mind, not wanting to play the pattern on 3′s).

With her I finally had to pause and re-address finger numbers and that the thumbs are 1′s and going out from there, pinkies being 5′s. The hands (fingers) are mirror images of each other. I have noticed like in Minuet in G or The Pipes, when the G’s switch from bottom not to top note, students tend to initially place their thumb on the top G rather than the pinky, which is the top RH finger.

Regarding right and left with young students, i usually tell young students that they “write” with their right hand. That would not be true of a left-handed person, but true I’d say for most people who are right-handed.  Also, high or up (to the right) and low or down (to the left) is related to pitch changes (high sounds and low sounds).

You bring up an interesting point about all this, though. It goes to show that some of the earliest and seemingly most basic of concepts are not being fully absorbed by some students, particularly younger students. It’s a good opportunity to let “coaches” know to review the Basics Section before Dreams Come True again!  That segment might not have been watched or “fully” retained the first time if students were anxious to start the first song.

Sandy L., Nebraska

I like what Stephen says here about an opportunity for coaches to review the Basics Section on the student video. A further instruction to coaches could be to have them play simple games with the students during the week. It can be easily used with the Basics, and could be fun, especially for young students. Here is what I mean:

The coach can call out instructions like “hold up RH finger 2.” Child holds up that finger. Coach might say “play middle C with it.” Child plays middle C. Coach can keep calling out instructions based on what child knows so far, for a very short time during the practice–60 seconds maybe? Just depends on the child. These instructions become more complex as the child gets faster at carrying them out. So, once child can do the instructions one little step at a time, coach might start combining steps, e.g., play 5 steps of sound with RH finger 1 on any G. That kind of instruction might happen for one child at the end of the first week and for another several weeks later.

However long it takes, and whatever concepts need to be worked on, coach should view it and present it as a fun game, not a serious exercise. Coach and student could also switch roles and let student call out the instructions.

You could even play it in class for 1-2 minutes the first time around. As the teacher, you can tailor the challenges to what each student needs and point out to the life coaches how they can do the same thing.