Promoting Success with Special Learners

Small modifications can go a long way to ensure students with special needs are successful.


Model acceptable and unacceptable techniques so students can see and hear differences, as they learn what you expect of them.

Use the same terms to explain and describe concepts; too many variations may cause confusion.

Create rehearsal cds of individual parts for those special needs students who may need to practice outside of class.

Modify scores for students who have difficulty with a full octavo. Create a “blank” score with only the student’s vocal line and the most basic music information, such as meter and key signatures. Insert visual cues that reinforce or remind students of specific musical goals.

Adapt expectations as needed by reducing the number of musical concepts students are are to master.

Create a musical cue that the student understands, even if it’s not a traditional music mark (such as as comma for breath). Ideally, have the student help you mark his/her score.


Use more than one type of assessment (e.g., written as well as oral) for each concept to allow the student with special needs to given an optimal response.

Plan for the kinds of educational supports and testing adaptations your students with special needs may require (for example, icons supporting written words, color coding, allowing extra time to take the assessment, administering assessment in individual or small groups, etc.)

Adapt a grade book for special learners so anyone involved with the student’s academic success can have a detailed evaluation report.

If you grade on “behavior”, “participation”, or “growth in learning”, consider calculating these elements separately from the other assessments, and don’t add them to the students’ overall grade. This will help to more clearly assess a student’s true progress in music learning.

Adapted from “Special Learners in Choral Ensembles: Steps for Successful Inclusion”, Kim Van Weelden, Michigan Music Educator, vol 46, issue 1, 2008; and from Van Weelden’s article, “Choral Mainstreaming: Tips for Success”  which appeared in Music Educators Journal, November 2001.

–Sue Rarus, October 27, 2009. © National Association for Music Education