Strategies for Students with Special Needs

All those kids, all those different learning styles, all those special needs—how do you reach and teach them all? NAfME member Ruth Ann Debrot points out that many strategies that work for one student may be applied to other students. Here are her recommendations:

Get information about each student.

  • Talk to teachers, parents, counselors, and students themselves.
  • Become familiar with particular disabilities and avoid preconceptions about student abilities.

Avoid sensory overload and be predictable.

  • Keep your classroom organized and free from distractions.
  • Keep directions simple and direct.
  • Establish lesson routines (e.g., beginning and ending songs)

Lesson preparation

  • Present materials in as many modes as possible to address different learning styles.
  • Develop a hands-on, participatory program that emphasizes varied activities like movement, instruments, rhythm, speech, sound exploration, melody, and dance for best effect.

Strategies for students with learning-disabilities


Students who have difficulty reading may struggle with written musical concepts.

  • Prepare simple visual charts.
  • Use color to highlight key concepts (e.g., do=blue, re=red, mi=green).
  • Isolate rhythm patterns into small pieces on a large visual.
  • Indicate phrases with a change in color.
  • Introduce concepts in small chunks.
  • Use repetition, but present material in different ways.

Students with visual impairments

  • Teach songs by rote and echoing patterns.
  • Provide rhythm instruments—such students can learn to play them without problems.
  • Assign a movement partner for movement activities.
  • Read aloud any information you present visually.
  • Get large-print scores when available.
  • Give a tour of the room so students can become familiar with where things are.

Students with behavior problems

  • Use routine and structure—it can be comforting for these students.
  • Remain calm and don’t lose your temper.
  • Maintain a routine from lesson to lesson (e.g., begin and end with a familiar song).
  • Vary the drill by playing or singing with different articulation and dynamics for students who can’t maintain focus for long.
  • Use props like puppets to give directions in a nonthreatening way.
  • Use songs or games that contain directions to help children who struggle to follow verbal directions or who have authority issues.

Students with physical disabilities (e.g., cystic fibrosis, heart trouble, asthma, diabetes, epilepsy)

  • Have students sing to help breathing and lung control.
  • Adapt Orff instruments by removing bars so that any note played will be correct. Orff instruments fit nicely onto a wheelchair tray.
  • Acquire adaptive instruments—adaptive mallets, Velcro straps for hand drums and other percussion instruments, and one-handed recorders are available. Find other adaptive musical instruments with an Internet search.
  • Develop activities for listening and responding to recorded music for children who are physically unable to move and/or play an instrument.

Students with higher learning potential

  • Offer a variety of activities, such as acceleration (design assignments that allow students to go to differing levels), enrichment (extra lessons), technological instruction (computer programs for composition, research, or theory).
  • Find a mentor for a student.
  • Offer advanced ability ensembles.

Debrot says you can address a variety of skill levels in one piece of music: While some children play complex patterns, others can play a simple steady beat or sing.

“Every student has a learning style that is unique,” says Debrot. “Presenting material aurally, visually, tactilely, and orally will insure that you connect with the varied learning styles for all students. The use of speech, movement, instruments, and singing in each lesson will insure that each child feels some degree of success.”


NAfME Resources

An Attitude and Approach for Teaching Music to Special Learners by Elise S. Sobol

“Keys to Success with Autistic Children,” by Scott H. Iseminger, Teaching Music, April 2009.

“Teaching Strategies for Performers with Special Needs,” by Ryan M. Hourigan, Teaching Music, June 2008.

“Teaching Music to Children with Autism: Understandings and Perspectives,” by Ryan Hourigan, Music Educators Journal, September 2009.

Articles by Alice-Ann Darrow in General Music Today.

NAfME’s Special Research Interest Group (SRIG) Children with Exceptionalities

“Differentiating Instruction in the Music Classroom,” by Ruth Ann Debrot, first appeared in the Massachusetts Music News (Winter 2002) and was reprinted in Spotlight on Making Music with Special Learners. Used with permission.

Ruth Ann Debrot teaches at Sharon Middle School in Sharon, Massachusetts.

—Linda C. Brown, originally posted June 16, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (