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Piano for special needs. Dealing with tantrums and meltdowns in your piano studio.

Tantrums and Meltdowns

If you teach children with special needs you probably have been through at least one meltdown or tantrum .

Given the time limitation of the session and its relatively high cost, such episodes can be stressful for the parent, the teacher as well as the child.

Through my experience with working with special needs children, I reached to important conclusions and would like to share my insight on the issue and the way I manage to keep things under control in my studio.

This post will highlight the difference between meltdowns and tantrums, possible triggers and how best to deal with these episodes if they occur, or even better avoid them completely.

What is a meltdown and what is a tantrum and why do you need to know the difference?

On the outside, tantrums and meltdowns look very similar. The child seems to be acting out and behaving in an unacceptable way. However, there is a big difference between the two and it’s really important to differentiate.

A meltdown is when the child has an intense response to overwhelming situations. The child becomes completely overwhelmed by the current situation and temporarily loses behavioural control (e.g. shouting, crying...).

You can avoid overwhelming situations during the lesson by:

  • Keeping the lesson structure predictable. I find having a printed out schedule with visuals really helpful. Going through this schedule at the beginning of every lesson keep things in check.

  • Having an incentive after a task goes a long way, a stamp or sticker on the lesson page will work.

  • Stay away from too easy or too difficult tasks. Boredom is definitely not your friend.


Keep an eye on the environment:

  • Is the piano placed next to a very bright window with direct sunlight?

  • Is the lighting placed directly above the piano?

  • Is the window open and the street noisy?

  • Recitals can be really tricky. Be ready to be flexible with your schedule. You want all children to enjoy and listen to each other play but the recital settings is overwhelming for some children with special needs and it’s a good idea to schedule them towards the beginning. You never know when they’ve had too much and are ready to leave.

Meltdowns need to be managed and prevented before they start. Schedule the lesson at a time when the child is less likely to be tired and stressed. I found that a straight from school session isn’t an ideal setup. This is when the kids are most likely to be lethargic, and lack the energy to perform.

However, not all children are the same. If an afternoon session doesn’t work well try a morning session. Sometimes, this is all you need to do.

You may need to change the location of your piano, I had to move mine away from the window for example.

If the child finds a lesson too difficult, don’t insist, do something easier and try again the same another day. Be observant and sensitive to early signs of distress, anticipate a meltdown coming and prevent it.

A tantrum is a behavioural outburst happening because a child is trying to get something he wants but cannot have, for example, an incentive that he didn’t earn, or she wants to be the first to play in a recital. The child is trying to make something happen through unacceptable behaviour. Sometimes it seems the easiest way to deal with this problem is to give in...beware!...don’t….this will only make things more difficult for you the next time.

Instead divert the attention to a different activity. Most importantly stay calm and avoid shaming.

Small incentives are really helpful to prevent tantrums. Find a system that works with you and the parent and use it. I am against candy and sweets obviously for health reasons, I prefer to stick to stamps and stickers and they work really fine.

Should you or should you not charge for the session?

This is totally your decision…I choose not to charge for any session with a special needs child if half or more of it was wasted due to a tantrum or meltdown. It just doesn’t feel good to me to do so… you might decide otherwise and I believe any decision here is neither right nor wrong, it is totally personal and depends on your relationship with the parents.


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