Teaching Music Remotely

Strategies for Students with Disabilities

By NAfME Member Ellary A. Draper

This article will appear in the April 2021 issue of General Music Today.

 In March of 2020 as schools closed due to COVID-19 and concerns for keeping students and communities safe, millions of students and teachers began engaging in remote learning. For many, remote learning has continued into Fall 2020 and may continue through the end of the school year. This shift to educating students has been challenging, and there are concerns about how all students are continuing to learn and develop in this environment; there is even greater concern for students with disabilities who do not have access to related services and special education services.

Current Issues in Special Education

When students with disabilities attend school, they often receive additional services beyond the classroom including specialized education services, various therapies, and in some cases nursing care. As schools shifted to remote instruction, it was unclear how these services could be delivered remotely and what services school districts were legally required to continue to provide during a pandemic. There are reports of students not receiving services or support at home for remote instruction and as a result, families of students with disabilities are suing in several states (Kamenetz, 2020a; Kamenetz, 2020b).

Young girl uses her laptop for remote learning

iStockphoto.com | gahsoon

Some districts decided to have students with disabilities return for in-person instruction while typical students remained remote or on a rotating schedule for in-person instruction. In these instances, parents of students with disabilities are concerned about lack of funding and safety concerns (Levine, 2020). Even when students with disabilities return to in-person instruction, it does not always mean the school day is what it was prior to the pandemic. Without typical students in schools, students with disabilities may not have access to general education classrooms, and some therapies could be delivered remotely while students sit in a special education classroom (Levine, 2020).

At the time this article was written, two vaccines have been granted approval and are being administered across the country. Since people with disabilities, particularly those with developmental disabilities, are at higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19, disability rights organizations are advocating for people with disabilities to be among the first vaccinated, particularly adults with disabilities who live in long-term care facilities (Diament, 2020; Jones, 2020). Some people with disabilities may have other related health conditions that limit their ability to have the vaccine and they will be reliant on those in their communities to receive the vaccine to protect them. In these instances, students with disabilities could remain at home longer than their typical peers as the percent of people who have received the vaccine in their communities is high enough to protect them as they return to in-person instruction.

While we all look forward to a return to normalcy, it is likely that remote instruction is here to stay. Some districts are even considering or have already announced a permanent move to remote instruction to replace inclement weather days (Jennings, 2020; Lieberman, 2020; Rosenthal & Samenow, 2020). As remote instruction continues, it is important for teachers to develop strategies for students to learn remotely, especially those with disabilities who will have more barriers to the format compared to their typical peers.

Strategies for Music Teachers

As with any student, it is important for music teachers to think critically about how to adapt instruction for remote learning. Consider the technology available to students in their homes, for instance whether or not they will be using computers, tablets, or phones to access materials, as well as whether or not families have access to internet at home. Most young children will need an adult helper nearby to assist with remote learning activities. It is important to know who, if anyone, will be available to assist students while engaging in remote learning. To learn this information, communicate with families.

young girls with teacher wearing masks

iStockphoto.com | sarra22

Collaborate with other teachers on what they are doing for students for remote instruction. While there will likely be district level requirements for teachers, any routines and similarities across teachers and subject areas will help both students and parents in being successful in completing assignments. Developing a consistent routine for students, particularly those with disabilities, will help students and parents manage daily work.

During this time, health organizations are encouraging us to isolate to keep our communities safe. As a result, people are not engaging in as many social activities. Consider ways that you can have students collaborate with each other and work together on assignments and projects. Students will appreciate having the chance to engage with each other and socialize. For students with disabilities, ensure that they are set up for success as they complete these projects. Adjust the task so students with disabilities are able to complete it, and carefully place students with disabilities into groups with supportive peers who do not over-help.

Specific to students with disabilities, it is important that any materials that are going to be used are accessible. Be sure that websites have accurate text to speech readers for students with vision impairment or are able to be enlarged with accuracy on tablets or computers. Likewise, if you are requiring students to use apps on tablets, be sure that the apps are accessible for students with disabilities. If you are sending digital or hard copy materials home, make sure it is ready to be used by students with disabilities. This may mean that you need to adjust the materials prior to sending to specific students.

Synchronous Instructional Strategies

Some teachers are using primarily synchronous instructional methods for remote teaching. For students with disabilities, it is important to ensure that they are able to operate the platform and if not, will have an adult nearby to assist them during synchronous learning. You also need to know how they will communicate within the synchronous learning platform you’re using. For students who are non-verbal, they will need to have their communication device nearby and ready to use to respond; communicate with the parents to add new phrases to the device so they can respond appropriately each day in class.

For all students, but especially for students with disabilities, it is important to plan lessons in a way that provide many different opportunities to respond and engage in the lesson. This principle of universal design is one that is also used in the classroom, but also has applications in remote learning (see Darrow, 2010 and Jellison, 2015 for more information about principles of universal design). Students can use the various features within a remote learning platform such as the chat box, emoji responses, and hand raise options. Many remote learning platforms allow teachers to create small groups of students to interact with each other through the platform, replicating small group work in the classroom. Some teachers are using collaborate documents, such as documents within the Google suite, for students to be able to type or work on a single product simultaneously during small group activities.

It’s easy when using synchronous instruction to get lost in the various technology options available to you, but often simple is better. Consider using the screen share feature to engage students in classroom activities. Templates for activities would need to be created to share ahead of time, and then during the lesson, the teacher would share their screen and type into the document, simulating a board in the classroom. Think beyond word documents when screen sharing: use slides for a presentation, scans of other classroom materials (e.g., story books), already set templates available online (e.g., Jeopardy boards, timelines) to engage students. 

Asynchronous Instructional Strategies

Some school districts are relying on asynchronous instruction to reach students. In asynchronous instruction, teachers communicate with parents and send regular assignments home that can be completed independently. It is important to communicate with other teachers to ensure that you are not overloading students (and parents) with too many activities to do at home or assigning similar activities. As you think about various assignments, particularly for young children, balance activities that students can complete independently with those that need assistance from parents to complete.

Teachers can use both their own created content—either print or digital—to send home to parents or already existing content available online. Students can watch videos where they learn new songs, play along with instruments at home, listen to a sung book while looking at the pictures, and engage in movement to music. You could also send ideas specifically directed towards parents on how to use music in a meaningful way throughout the day.

Teenage girl studying with video online lesson at home family in isolation Homeschooling and elearning

iStockphoto.com | valentinrussanov

Project-based learning is well suited for asynchronous instruction—you give an overall assignment, resources with ideas and examples, and allow students to create a product independently. The final product is then “turned-in” digitally. Students could create playlists for loved ones, create a dance to music, make their own instruments and then compose a song, or even write a full album complete with album artwork and notes. Consider creating projects that could be done alone or with siblings in the same household.


Teaching music remotely is not ideal, but it does seem to be here for both the short and long term. There is a wealth of resources available for teachers at this time. Be sure to look at the NAfME website for resources for remote music teaching as well as additional resources specific to teaching students with disabilities (e.g., Hammel, 2020; Wagner-Yeung, 2020). Developing successful strategies to engage students with disabilities will undoubtedly also increase the success for all students in your classes.


Darrow, A. A. (2010). Music education for all: Employing the principles of universal design to educational practice. General Music Today, 24, 43-45.

Diament, M. (2020). COVID-19 vaccine should go to those with developmental disabilities first, advocates say. DisabilityScoop.

Hammel, A. (2020). Teaching students with disabilities during COVID-19 [Webinar]. National Association for Music Education.

Jellison, J. A. (2015). Including everyone: Creating music classrooms where all children learn. Oxford University Press.

Jennings, R. (2020). Don’t expect a snow day, N.J. superintendent tells kids. Remote learning marches on. NJ.com

Jones, A. (2020). Will people with disabilities have priority for a COVID-19 vaccine? Special Needs Answers.

Kamenetz, A. (2020a). Survey shows big remote learning gaps for low-income and special needs children. NPR.

Kamenetz, A. (2020b). Families of children with special needs are suing in several states. Here’s why. NPR.

Levine, H. (2020). As school returns, kids with special needs are left behind. New York Times.

Lieberman, M. (2020). No more snow days, thanks to remote learning? Not everyone agrees. Education Week.

Rosenthal, Z. & Samenow, J. (2020). Distance learning may put snow days on thin ice. The Washington Post.

Wagner-Yeung, B. (2020). Distance learning for special learners in the music classroom. National Association for Music Education.

About the author: 

Ellary Draper shares strategies for teaching music remotely

Photo by Rob Draper

NAfME member Ellary A. Draper is associate professor of music therapy at The University of Alabama. She has worked as a music therapist with a variety of ages and populations and as an elementary general music teacher. Her research focuses on inclusive music settings.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

March 23, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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