"Strategies for Working with Special Needs Students in the General Music Classroom"

by Dr. Michelle Hairston, East Carolina University Adapted with permission from “The North Carolina Music Educator” Fall/Summer 2013 Music classes in today’s educational system have changed substantially.  With the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), educators are expected to see all students, with and without disabilities.  Children previously not served by music educators are now being served.  Many times a music therapist is hired to serve students with special needs; however, this is not the norm.  Because most music therapists still need a teaching credential to get into the school system, a therapist is not always available and it becomes the responsibility of the music educator to include the special needs students.

Thirteen different disability categories are listed by IDEA for ages 6-21.  They are:

  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Hearing impairment
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Visual impairment
  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Developmental delay

The nonspecific “developmental delay” category may be used only for students ages 3 through 9 (Adamek, M & Darrow, A.A. 2010). 

Add working with 21st Century Goals and the Standard Course of Study to having special needs students in the classroom and the challenge becomes even greater. One of the goals to being successful is to create a universal design for learning (UDL).  This design gives all students an opportunity to be successful.  The teacher designs instruction for students with a broad range of abilities, reading abilities, disabilities, motivation, learning styles, and attention span.  This is easier said than done. 

However, when dealing with special needs students in the general music classroom, this method has proven to be successful if three things are kept in mind:

  • multiple presentation means of materials, especially including technology, such as the Smart Board
  • consideration to how well the student responds to the materials and assessment of how the student demonstrates understanding and knowledge
  • how to engage the student in the learning process through determination of interest and motivation

(Bowe, 2000; Burgstahler, 2007a, 2007b; McCord & Watts, 2006; Rose & Myer, 2006 in Adamek and Darrow, 2010).

By keeping these three steps in mind, students of all abilities succeed. Knowing whether to accommodate or modify becomes extremely important in this process.  Accommodating students means believing that they can achieve what other members of the class can achieve with some help.  Modifying the curriculum happens when the student is not able to complete the same assignment or participate in the same manner as the other students because of their disabilities. This requires more careful in-depth planning to be successful.

Strategies to keep in mind when planning come from some very common sense type of thinking:

  • Students are more alike than they are different
  • Learn to find the similarities and use those similarities as the basis for your lessons (Wilson, B., 2002). Do not focus on the differences.
  • Develop partnerships for your students-pair reliable, conscientious students with special needs students. Encourage peer teaching.
  • Be prepared to offer services and/or teaching before or after class for extra learning time needed or reinforcement of the current lesson.
  • Focus student attention, “Eyes here.”  Give one instruction at a time.  Remember to speak distinctly, and not rapidly.  Give all students time to process the instructions before moving on to the next item or activity.
  • Attend IEP meetings to give input.  Don’t let others set goals for you-be proactive and speak to what the special needs student can do in your music classroom.
  • Be sure you know what the characteristics are of the students that are in your classroom.  Many times, just knowing the developmental level or capability of the student is the key to planning successful activities. If paraprofessionals come to your music class accompanying the special needs students, here are a few things that you might ask them to do so that all students in the class are successful:
  • Actively participate in the music activities.  Do not allow them to sit in the back of the room reading or use that time to take a break.
  • Move around the room to assist all students so that everyone is included in the activities. Paraprofessionals that act bored or sleepy in the classroom will deflate any enthusiasm for what is going on in the classroom.
  • Ask for insight to any problems occurring with a student before the student comes to music class.  Have there been issues that might make participation in the music class unsuccessful on this particular day?
  • Make sure the paraprofessional knows what your classroom rules are so that they are able to reinforce them appropriately. Never allow for disciplining that is contrary to your classroom philosophy.
  • Be sure to share information with the classroom teacher as to the progress and behavior of the student in music class.  Make sure there is two way communication, especially if the paraprofessional is the ‘go between’ relaying messages. Creating a positive atmosphere in your classroom is essential.  If a special needs student does not feel welcome in the classroom, the student(s) will display acting out behaviors.  It is critical that the teacher make sure the classroom is set for success.  Using person first language is also imperative.  Do not refer to the disability or impairment first, but rather the student.  Ex. Do NOT say, “The autistic boy”, but rather, “The boy with autism”.  This is quite difficult for some teachers to remember, but it is just a learned habit that displays respect and needs to be used by all teachers. Some tips to maintain a well-managed, inviting classroom are:
  • Keep rules short and to the point-have students help make the rules.  That way they are more invested in what is appropriate and what is not.
  • State rules in a positive manner.  Ex. Rather than ‘don’t talk’, simply say, ‘listen’.
  • Kindly remind students of the rules.  Do it often, and NOT just when rules are being broken. Special needs students, particularly, need to be reminded often.
  • Notice students who are following the rules and point them out-using them as examples.
  • Follow through with consequences.  All students will test you.  They are looking to see if you will enforce the rules or let them ‘slide’.  Once a student sees that you are indiscriminate in reinforcing the rules, you will have no management of the classroom, creating an atmosphere of chaos.
  • Make sure you, as the teacher, have realistic expectations. Do not plan activities way beyond the capabilities of the special needs student.  Be mindful that it is developmentally appropriate as well as age appropriate.
  • Look at the attitude you have in class-would you want to be in your class?
  • Find ways to avoid behavior problems-make the student with behavior problems be the ‘helper’ for you.  Have that student hand out papers, take roll, hand out instruments, collect the instruments-whatever it takes to be involved in a positive way. (Dr. Hairston will present a session on this topic at the NCMEA state conference in Winston-Salem, NC November 9-12, 2013)  


Adamek, M. & Darrow, A.A. (2010). Music in special education.  Silver Spring, MD.: The American Music Therapy  Association, Inc. Darrow, A.A. (1999). Music educators’ perceptions regarding the inclusion of students with severe disabilities in music classrooms.  Journal of Music Therapy, 36, 254-273. Wilson, B. (Ed.), (1999). Models of music therapy interventions in school settings (2nd ed.). Silver Spring, MD: The American Music Therapy Association, Inc.