Success with Special Learners: Going with the Flow

Every year, between 15 and 20 students with special needs enroll in Herndon High School’s Concert Choir.  Director Dana Van Slyke says, “I feel I have learned just as much from the special needs students as they from me.” (Last week’s article gives you the background.)

Dana Van Slyke has a supportive administration and has never had to go to them specifically with issues about working with students with special needs. She admits she’s lucky to have an aide in her classroom to help students with special needs. Not all music teachers in other schools get that kind of support.

Most Intellectually Disabled students (ID) have been trained to raise their hand every time a teacher asks a question. Van Slyke relates how a girl with Downs Syndrome named Julie had a speech impediment and stuttered, and yet “this gal had a lot to say.” Every time Van Slyke asked the choir a question, Julie’s hand went up. Van Slyke says, “When I let Julie respond, all the other students would patiently wait and listen and allow Julie to finish. The kids adapted to the situation, and they ‘adopted’ the special needs kids, protected them, and respected them.”

Van Slyke continues: “For performances, I would assign a student to be the partner to one of the students with special needs. The students were great with the special needs students, but I would make it clear to them that they didn’t have a choice in this decision. I made it clear that this is an example of class imitating life – in other words, life will not always give you choices as to what you do and who you work with, so, all the better to get accustomed to it!”

“I always waited to see if any of the kids would be bitter about it, but they weren’t. They were anything but — protective and helpful.”

Van Slyke has never really had to adapt music to accommodate any of the special learners. To accommodate the ESL students, she’ll sometimes pick songs that have more neutral sounds and a simpler vocabulary, for example, a song where the only words are “Alleluia.” Van Slyke tries to find music for everyone, to “even the playing field.” Show tunes, a spoken piece, something more advanced – Van Slyke likes to have the group’s repertoire reflect the uniqueness of its members.

Van Slyke mentioned that kinesthetic activity works really well for kids with special needs, and that it’s “win-win” for all the students. Movement with the music (clapping, dance steps, moving hands and feet) works across all grade and ability levels. Everyone loves it!

Thanks to Dana Van Slyke, Herndon High School choral program, for her time and insights.
NOTE: Names of students are fictional to protect their privacy

–Sue Rarus, October 14, 2009. © National Association for Music Education