Best Strategies for Teaching Piano to Students with ADHD.
“The hardest thing about ADHD is that it's 'invisible' to outsiders. People just assume that we are not being good parents and that our child is a brat, when they don't have an idea how exhausted we truly are.” Sara C.
ADHD is probably one of the most overused terms when it comes to neurodevelopmental disorders and strangely enough one of the most invisible. ADHD is most likely to come with other conditions, many of which are not obvious and rather hard to notice. These conditions are sometimes very mild where it appears that the student is only acting out and misbehaving, or sometimes these conditions may also be so severe and cause a learning disability for another student.
If you are a piano teacher you most likely have encountered at least one student with ADHD. I have encountered many and with time I started to notice patterns of behavior that indicated the possibility of ADHD. These behaviors usually fall under one of the following main categories. Here are some examples of how they manifest themselves during my lessons:
The student tends to have organization difficulties, frequently forgets the music books either at home or at my studio, forgets to do homework or does it but leaves it at home, or loses it altogether.
The student has difficulty following my instructions, many times because of not paying enough attention while I speak or sometimes because I wasn’t very precise with my instructions.
Practicing needs a lot of organizational skills and mental effort, my students with ADHD are super practice avoiders with many random and creative excuses. I find myself always resorting to the help of the parents to supervise this and follow up at home if I need any consistent practice.
Often, the student doesn’t pay attention to detail while playing and consequently makes many avoidable mistakes, ignoring all dynamics marks, articulation marks, and sometimes ignoring the rhythm altogether, all of this not coming from a place of not knowing what to do, but rather from not being able to self-regulate to get the best performance possible, not following through, and sometimes simply to not paying enough attention to the sheet music.
I couldn’t help but notice that my students with ADHD tend to behave younger than their age and can sometimes be annoying. In many cases, they speak without thinking, interrupt me while trying to explain something or start to improvise on the piano instead of listening to what I say. In a group setting, they find it difficult to take turns and work independently without continuous prompting. If left to work independently, most of the time they end up wasting the lesson time improvising and randomly pressing on the keys and pedals, which can be quite disruptive to me and the other students. Sometimes, they talk back and act out which can be quite challenging.
It is very likely that the student suddenly stops in the middle of playing the assigned piece and starts talking about random unrelated topics.
All of the above result in delaying progress since it takes much longer for us to go through pieces and lessons and books.
Students with ADHD tend to move a lot on the bench and continuously fidget around, playing random keys as you explain something, they find it difficult to stop pressing the piano pedals, sometimes they move away from the bench and jump around. A few of my students with ADHD find it difficult to sit on the bench on some days and they prefer to play standing up during that lesson.
That being said, working with children with ADHD made me realize that despite all the challenges we both face during the lessons, many of them are the most intelligent students that I have ever taught. They definitely have strengths to compensate for their challenges, strengths that always make them special, and a lot of fun to work with.
If your student has ADHD expect to work with a very creative, motivated, and full of energy student who is capable of a great deal of focus on any subject he/she is interested in. Focusing on these strengths while gently managing the challenges give results every time.
The following 4 strategies proved to be the best when teaching students with ADHD:
1. Students with ADHD are immersive learners
In other words, they learn by doing. Giving instructions only and expecting your student to know what to do is a recipe for failure. After giving the instructions and demonstrating what needs to be done, I make sure that my student understands by “doing” and “living the experience”.
For example, instead of asking my student to practice well at home instead of playing the piece over and over again, we have a - practice only - session every once in a while when I demonstrate exactly how practicing should be done. We choose a piece to practice very well and do a practice session. Only then I can become sure that the student actually knows how to practice at home. Even writing down instructions and checklists is not guaranteed to always work.
Another example is when we are starting a new piece, I make sure that I don’t spoon-feed it by telling or showing the student how it is supposed to be played, I delay playing it myself until after the student had figured out how to do most of it independently, only then I can be sure that my student actually knows how to tackle new pieces.
I found out that giving my student enough space to make mistakes is always guaranteed to lead to a better understanding and better learning, always.
2. Keeping instruction short and clear.
Using checklists help me overcome the shorter than usual attention span. Timers are also great when used during the lesson. For example, I assign 2 minutes for the student to work on a couple of measures independently with a checklist of what exactly should be done during these 2 minutes and I set the timer, the presence of the timer motivates the student to not waste time and focus on working with the checklist using time as effectively as possible.
When my lessons are predictable, I notice that this brings comfort and confidence to my student and leads to easier and more productive lessons. Being firm but kind at the same time always takes care of any acting out and misbehavior. After all, we have to always keep in mind that students with ADHD are not intentionally misbehaving, they are merely not always in control of their actions and are impulsive by nature.
3. Allow some breaks:
Working with students with ADHD showed me that allowing time for talking and moving and having short breaks, in the long run, is much more productive than continuous prompting, telling off, and giving my student negative feedback.
It is much easier to come back from a short talk into focus instead of getting into an argument that leads nowhere and only builds up frustration. These short breaks can be learning breaks if you prefer, for example, movement breaks can incorporate learning rhythm.
A typical productive lesson will look something like this: a chunk of work on the bench, a few minutes of a different activity that incorporates movement, another chunk of work on the bench followed by a few minutes talking about the life of a composer or any relevant subject that the student finds interesting followed by a few minutes of theory.