Teaching Lessons to Children with Special Needs
By NAfME Member Brian Wagner
Many teachers who work in private studios have a special benefit when teaching music lessons to students. Teachers often have the opportunity to work one-on-one with students, or in small groups, and have the opportunity to work on specific musical skills. Nevertheless, all students have the right to partake in private musical lessons—including special learners.
Special learners are students who: learn, process information, communicate, move, and experience life in alternative ways. Special learners can include:
- Students who receive special education services
- Students with communication delays
- Students with intellectual or cognitive delays
- Students with emotional or behavioral disabilities
- Students with physical disabilities
- Students who are blind, deaf, or hard-of-hearing
- Students classified as gifted and talented
- Students who receive ENL services, or English is not their first language
When working with special learners, it is important to remember that many students might have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), or a 504. These are documents that list necessary: modifications, restrictions, adaptations, and accommodations necessary for students to be successful. You can find out more information on students’ individual needs from:
- Classroom Special Education Teachers or Classroom Teachers
- Paraprofessionals or Teaching Assistants
- Related-Service Providers: Speech, ENL, Hearing, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy
- Other Music (or Arts) Teachers
The Musical Environment
When working with special learners, the studio environment is extremely important. Teachers need to take into account: the organization of the room, the flow and routine of the lesson, incorporating visuals, and developing clear procedures. Teachers should model all the routines and procedures that are developed, so students can imitate what the expectations are.
When organizing the lesson space, teachers should make sure there is as little clutter as possible, and keep the room organized and neat. This will help prevent as little distraction as possible, and will help students who might have sensory needs or can be easily overwhelmed when there is too much information.
Incorporating rules with pictures, and using schedules, can help students independently follow the flow of the lesson. By having pictures connected to each rule—students are able to see what the expectation looks like. By having a schedule, students will be able to see what will happen first, next, and so on. This can be extremely useful for students who are on the autism spectrum, or have anxiety. Teachers can reuse this schedule for each lesson, to help build a strong routine so students will know the order of every lesson. For example, in each lesson: first is set-up, then is warm-up, then is method book work, etc.
Instrumental and Vocal Adaptations
Since many students might receive Occupational Therapy (OT) or Physical Therapy (PT) services throughout the school day, adaptions to the instruments might be necessary for students to be successful. These might be due to emerging fine motor/gross motor skills, or emerging hand-eye/hand-finger coordination.
Instrumental music is a great way for students to connect their OT/PT goals into music-making, while enhancing cross-hemispheric development. Teachers should remember to allow students to practice any skills as independently as possible—as the eventual goal is for the student to become independent.
Teachers can incorporate several strategies to help connect to OT/PT skills:
- Finger warm-ups
- Body warm-ups (ex: breathing, stretching)
- Incorporating breaks if necessary
- Using alternative objects to develop muscle memory (e.g., pencils to shape bow hand, rulers with dots to practice fingering)
- Color-coding drum mallets or spots on the drum to help alternate left/right hands
Teachers can also adapt the actual instruments to allow students to become more successful. Teachers can incorporate colors, tactile manipulatives, and re-arrange parts of an instrument. Some basic strategies can include:
- Thumb stickers on woodwind/brass instruments, or recorders
- Thumb stickers on string instruments or bows
- Different colored stickers/tape for different pitches on instruments
- Rearranging the strings on instruments to focus on two strings at first
- Incorporating gloves, with velcro, to help hold a mallet or bow
When adapting vocal lessons, teachers can adapt as many pitches or sounds as possible. Since many students might receive speech services, starting with vowels first can be easier to warm-up with, rather than singing with consonants. For example, instead of singing Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So, students can sing O-E-I-A-O. Gradually, teachers can begin to incorporate consonants. Teachers can also use visuals when teaching about different parts of the voice or body. This can help students literally see what the teacher is asking them to do. For example, when sustaining a pitch, the teacher can draw a line. When moving pitches up and down, teachers can draw an arch.
When teaching the text to a song, sometimes incorporating visuals might be necessary as well. Many students who receive special education services might struggle with reading and can become frustrated when having to read text. Teachers can use Google Images to represent the different words in a song. When learning a new song, teachers can first focus on speaking the words in rhythm, and then begin singing. Teachers might need to model or teach by rote, if necessary, and incorporate any problem spots into a warm-up. Lastly, teachers can use movement to the teach the melodic contour of a song (e.g., dancing or scarves to show where the high/low sounds are).
Some students might struggle with music literacy at first. This is due to there being many new types of: icons, shapes, images, text, words, and visuals for students to process. Teachers can easily adapt the way music notation looks to allow students to find new entry points and become successful. Some strategies include:
- Stop and Go Images when beginning notation (Go = quarter note, Stop = quarter rest)
- Iconic Images (e.g., clap, stomp, hit the drum, play an open D)
- Color-coded rhythms or pitches (e.g., green quarter note, red quarter rest, Do = red, Re = orange)
- Incorporating letters of each pitch, or solfege letters, beneath the notes
Teachers can start simple when it comes to reading musical notation and begin to scaffold as students become more independent readers. Remember, the goal is for students to be as independent as possible. Some students might always need to use color-coded music notation. Nevertheless, by incorporating this, you are allowing them to become successful to the best of their ability.
Teaching lessons to students with special needs can be an amazing experience, both for the student, and for the teacher. Teachers should always be aware of any modifications a student might require, in order for them to be successful. Teachers can communicate with families—and, if possible, with staff from their school—to find the necessary strategies. Teachers can also adapt: the instrument, technique, learning environment, and music notation for students to be successful. As long as teachers are flexible toward “out-of-the-box” methods, students will have a wide variety of entry points in the music lesson.
Brian Wagner’s webinars—“Making Connections: Using Music to Make Artistic, Interdisciplinary, and Lifelong Connections for Special Learners” and “Teaching Lessons to Special Learners”—are available in NAfME Academy. Subscribe today!
Read Brian’s past blogs, “Using Repertoire to Enhance Lifelong Learning” and “Engaging All Types of Learners in the Music Classroom.”
About the author:
NAfME member Brian Wagner 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.
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