Behavioral Supports for Students with Special Needs in Musical Environments

Behavioral Supports for Students with Special Needs
in Musical Environments


By NAfME Member Brian J. Wagner-Yeung


Oftentimes, students might enter a musical learning environment displaying what a teacher could consider negative or inappropriate behaviors. This happens more so with students who are classified as special education, or students with special needs.

Nevertheless, music teachers can easily modify the classroom, or learning environment, to support students who might be struggling with negative behaviors. In addition, teachers can provide additional supports to help encourage/motivate students to display appropriate behaviors. This can be done through either: adapting the actual learning environment, providing individual support systems for students, and/or modifying the instruction to help meet the need of the student.


What Determines Behavior? 

For students with special needs, there are many reasons why inappropriate behaviors might be displayed. Some examples include:

  • Sensory needs
  • Anxiety
  • Difficult home life
  • Needs more structure
  • Needs tasks broken down more
  • Needs individualized plans
  • Learned helplessness
  • Copying behavior
  • Attention seeking
  • Escape of activity or work
  • Lack of ability to communicate
  • Lack of understanding of the task


First Step Resources 

When working with specific behaviors, it is important to reach out and communicate with the school community. Many times, other members of the school community can provide resources, or ideas, that can help targeted behaviors in the music classroom. Reaching out should be the first resource, as teachers can find out if the behaviors are happening in other locations of the school. Some members can include:

  • Classroom teachers
  • Special education teachers
  • Paraprofessionals or teaching assistants
  • Other arts/specialty teachers
  • Counselors
  • Related service providers
  • Administration
  • Parents

Lastly, it is important to become familiar with any documentation the students might already have. If a student is receiving special education services, then they will already have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Many times, students might already have a BIP (Behavioral Intervention Plan) in their IEP, which is developed by a team of specialists within the school community. If a student already has a BIP, then music teachers must incorporate the supports and strategies listed, as this is a legal document.


Basic Strategies

Sometimes, students in music class might display negative behaviors, and not have a BIP. Even more, music might be the only classroom where a student could be displaying these behaviors. Several of the reasons could be because of the list mentioned earlier. Music teachers can incorporate several management tools into their classroom to help provide support.

Music teachers should create a structured learning environment, which also incorporates good pacing and routines. Pacing is important, because some activities can be too long for certain students—while others can be too short, which do not provide ample time for students to intake the material being presented.

Teachers should have a clear and short list of rules posted somewhere visible in the classroom. The rules should be located in an area where students can easily have access to them. Teachers can also incorporate visual icons of what each rule looks like. This will help add a visual support for some special learners who might not connect with the text. There should also be realistic and consistent consequences for when a rule is broken.


behavioral supports

Music teachers should incorporate clear routines in every lesson. The easiest way to incorporate this is by having a schedule of all activities posted in the classroom. Since music lessons tend to incorporate multiple types of activities (e.g.: singing, movement, composing, etc.), the schedule should be as consistent as possible each lesson. This can help students who might have anxiety about what is going to happen next. For example: students will feel more comfortable when they know that after the hello song, is always a listening activity, followed by singing. For some classes, small breaks may be necessary in the schedule. You can also pair your schedule with visuals as well to add more support.


class schedule

In addition to routines, incorporate clear procedures as well. Procedures are the process of how we get from one activity (or one location) to the next. As mentioned, music classes tend to involve multiple types of activities. Teachers need to think about: how will students transition from activity A (singing on the rug) to activity B (instrumental work)? Students should have ample time to practice procedures at the beginning of the school year. Visual supports can be provided as well to guide students as independently as possible.

class rules

For some students, sensory needs might need to be addressed. Teachers can incorporate manipulatives, or fidget toys, to help intake their sensory needs. For example, teachers can incorporate: koosh balls, weighted objects, small blocks, or a squishy ball. Students can still partake in a lesson while quietly using their fidget toy to help regulate their sensory processing.

Lastly, it is important to incorporate positive reinforcement as much as possible. When a student displays a correct behavior, an immediate reinforcement can help pair what the desired expectation is. For some students, this can be a simple reward such as a verbal praise or a high five. For some students, you might require more specific reinforcements such as: a prize, a sticker, food, etc.


Data Collection 

As mentioned, sometimes students may come into the music room displaying negative behaviors, and do not have an BIP. Music teachers can still create an effective plan to support students’ behavior. It is important to remember that when a music teacher is creating a behavior plan, it is not a formal BIP. The music teachers plan is a tool, or support, to allow an individual student to find success.

The first thing that a music teacher needs to do is to collect data on the behavior. While data collection can seem tedious when teachers already have a lot of other responsibilities—data collection can help the teacher analyze what the specific behavior is, when it is occurring, and why it is occurring. There are two types of data analysis teachers can incorporate: data plots and anecdotals.

Data plots are a simple way of collecting data throughout a music lesson. If your lesson follows the same routine each class, you can easily create a grid with your scheduled routine. While the lesson is occurring, you can check off or tally when a specific behavior occurs. You can also include the intensity of the behavior, if it is varying. Through this process, teachers can begin to analyze when a behavior occurs within the lesson. Is it only at the beginning, or the end? Is it only during singing, or instrument activities? Is it scattered through the lesson? This will give you a clearer picture of where and when the behavior is occurring.

data collectionA second way of collecting data is using anecdotals. This is a more detailed way of collecting data on a specific behavior. This type of data analysis occurs after the lesson, when the teacher has time to reflect. There are three important sections when collecting anecdotals:

  • A – The Antecedent (what happened before the behavior was displayed?)
  • B – The Behavior (what was the actual behavior?)
  • C – The Consequent (what was the result of the behavior?)

When analyzing behavior in this way, oftentimes teachers do not focus on the antecedent or the consequent. Nevertheless, sometimes these two sections are the reason that the behavior exists. Perhaps something was triggering the student which caused the behavior to exist? Perhaps the student was seeking attention from the consequent, and this was why the behavior occurred?



Developing a Plan 

Once enough data has been collected, then teachers can begin to analyze the data and develop an intervention. As mentioned earlier, the plan that is developed is not a formal BIP—however sometimes some students need extra support to be successful, and the plans can help allow students a chance to reach these goals.

There are multiple types of plans that teachers can begin to develop based on the data analysis. Some examples include:

  • First/Then charts
  • Token economy systems
  • Checklists
  • Individualized schedules
  • Visual trackers
  • Extra supports (fidget toys, sensory items, breaks)
  • Personal contracts
  • Incorporating breaks into the schedule

First/then charts are a simple way to start with immediate behavior reinforcement. This type of system works extremely well with students with special needs. First, they complete a simple task, and then are rewarded immediately with something. If teaching assistants or paraprofessionals are in the classroom, this can be a great way to engage other adults. Some examples of reinforcement can include: koosh ball, high five, sticker, instruments, goldfish cracker (check with classroom teacher, parents, and nurse in case of any food allergies before using food reinforcements). It is also important to note that the reinforcement has to be motivating for the student. You can discuss with the student what they would like to work for, or provide a visual grid where they can point and choose.

special needs

A token economy system is a similar concept to first/then charts, in that the student has to work for a longer amount of time to earn a number of tokens to receive the reinforcement. Moreover, teachers can begin to incorporate multiple types of expectations during a token economy system. Timers are a great way to track this type of behavioral system. You can create a laminated chart with tokens attached by velcro on the back. For example: if a student is able to stay in his/her seat for 2 minutes, they receive a token. Once they receive 5 tokens, they are rewarded with a high five.

For this type of system, it is important that the students are the ones putting the tokens on their boards, as the eventual goal is self-regulation. Moreover, it is also important to note that these systems only work with positive behaviors. A token system does not work when a token is taken away for negative behavior—rather we allow them the chance to try again. If using a timer, you can pause the timer until the student goes back to what the desired behavior is, and then continue the timer until they reach their award. Remember, we want them to achieve their goal.

special learners

A third example is incorporating an individual checklist. For tasks that involve multiple steps, checklists can help students who might not understand the directions the first time. Moreover, you are now allowing them the opportunity to be successful. You can create a checklist in various types of ways, depending on a students’ cognitive and academic level. You can use a typed boxed checklist where students check off each step that they complete. You can do a similar style with picture symbols to help students see a visual representation. Lastly, you can incorporate a picture checklist of someone in the class (or the teacher) doing each step—this way the student can visually see what it should look like in the actual classroom.


Behavioral interventions are hugely important when working with children with special needs. Oftentimes, they are excited and motivated by the musical content already. Nevertheless, sometimes there are things out of their control, and music teachers need to incorporate new strategies to allow students to find success. For more information on behavioral interventions, you can view resources using PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention Support) which provide various types and tiers of strategies for special learners.


Read Brian’s past blogs, “Teaching Lessons to Children with Special Needs,” “Using Repertoire to Enhance Lifelong Learning,” and “Engaging All Types of Learners in the Music Classroom.”


About the author:

music teacherNAfME member Brian J. Wagner-Yeung received his BA and MSED in Music Education from CUNY Queens College. He is currently split between two schools in Brooklyn: PS 370K and Brooklyn School of Inquiry. He has worked with students on the elementary, middle school, and high school level, where he has worked with students who have severe special needs—in addition to students who are gifted and talented. Mr. Wagner has taught: general music, string orchestra, musical theatre, and performing arts. He is a classically trained cellist, and currently plays regularly in the NYC area.

He has presented, and co-presented workshops for: NYSSMA, NYCDOE, SCMEA, OMEA, NJMEA, CMEA, NYSCAME, NAfME National In-Service Conference, NAfME Biennial Eastern Division Conference, NAfME Western Division Conference, and two online webinars for NAfME Academy. He has also presented lectures at CUNY Brooklyn College, CUNY Queens College, and NYU. In addition, he has had papers and articles published in: International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, School Music News, Tempo, Maryland Music Educator, and Bluegrass Music News, in addition to NAfME’s blog Music in a Minuet.

Visit Brian’s websiteConnect with Brian on LinkedIn.


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