Does my piano student have a learning difficulty?
“Am I a bad teacher?” you might sometimes wonder while watching your student struggle with yet another lesson you’re trying to teach. You and your student are both trying your best, but you feel something is missing…
Statistics suggests that a least 15% of children have some kind of a learning difficulty. Because many of these children have higher than average IQ’s and they are experts in using their strengths to compensate for certain difficulties it makes it hard on the teacher to spot.
Much later on, when you start bumping into walls and hitting plateaus, is when you start suspecting that there must be something wrong and you realize that you have been wasting a lot of precious time.
If your student is struggling with certain issues on the piano bench, look for signs of a learning difficulty. If caught at the beginning you can tweak your teaching, sometimes very slightly, and address the problem early on to avoid frustration in the future.
I have accepted many students who have earlier quit piano or who their teachers gave up on them. Later, within only a few months of teaching to their abilities rather than wrestling with their weaknesses they started to show great progress and improvement.
Detecting a learning difficulty
Common signs that a student may have a learning difficulty include the following:
Difficulty learning to read notes:
This is one of the most indicative and at the same time can be a quite tricky sign to detect.
Students with special needs are experts in compensating for their challenges. They usually are very intelligent and resourceful. I have had many students who for a while were able to memorize and actually trick me into believing that they were reading, until later on, I discover they have an exceptional auditory memory and they have been memorizing everything.
Lack of manual dexterity and motor planning:
All new piano students need time to develop manual dexterity, what I mean here is an unusual exaggerated difficulty controlling the fingers independently and playing with the 10 fingers.
Sometimes you may notice that your student needs to look down at his fingers to move the desired one.
On other occasions you may notice that your student always mixes up her second and third fingers, always playing the middle note of a triad with her second instead of third finger, no matter how many times you correct and work on this during the lesson, you find out that in next lesson the same problem reappears.
Sometimes you may find that your student has a difficulty distinguishing left hand from right hand or playing the right hand part of the music with the left hand and vice versa.
Difficulty in tracking the score:
You may find your student is continuously getting lost and unable to track the score without losing his position. Sometimes needing you to always point to the notes being played in order to be able to stay on track. This sometimes can point to a learning difficulty.
Short attention span and quick frustration:
Some students with learning difficulties find it very difficult to stay on task long enough to learn concepts. They are easily distracted and interrupt the lesson with random unrelated subjects continuously. Added to that they become easily frustrated if the lesson is a little bit challenging.
Problems with staying organized and following instructions:
If your student continuously forgets her books, finds it hard to be organized and follow a certain practice plan and has difficulty in following instructions is also an indicator to a learning difficulty.
Problems understanding concepts or words, delayed speech and difficulty expressing oneself.
Not able to work independently:
If your student will not practice unless prompted by the parent and this is not coming out of being careless or lazy, or sometimes you feel that you can’t leave your student on the bench to play his piece alone while you go fetch a book from your shelf, otherwise he will stop working until you come back. This total dependency is a sign that you have a student struggles with some sort of a learning difficulty.
These signs combined or alone are not enough to determine that a student has a learning difficulty, but serve as a good indicator. A professional assessment is necessary to diagnose a learning difficulty. As a piano teacher you most probably have encountered some cases such as the above, and parents are sometimes hesitant to share their children's diagnoses with you.
What would you do in this case?
Would you share your concern with parent?
Keep quiet and try your best?