Updated: Mar 20
“Recognizing the problem doesn’t always bring a solution, but until we recognize that problem, there can be no solution.” James A. Baldwin
“What’s happening here? What did I do wrong this time? How did I miss the signs?” I find myself wondering on some occasions while watching a student struggle through yet another lesson.
Did you know that teachers are often the first to notice a learning disorder? even before the parents themselves. I’m fully aware that only a professional is able to properly diagnose a learning disorder, nonetheless, so many times I find myself noticing a student struggle through something that seems quite obvious to most, and in many cases, I needed to bring the attention of the parent to a possibility of a learning disorder and recommended testing.
In many other cases, I signed up children where the parents already knew and had tested and diagnosed their child but decided to leave me to figure things out on my own. Much later on, after I started bumping into walls and hitting plateaus, I started suspecting a problem and later realized that I had been wasting a lot of precious time.
This is exactly why I want to share all of the main signs that you should look out for in order to save you and your students time, effort, frustration, and disappointment.
It’s important to know that statistically speaking, at least 15% of children have some kind of learning difficulty. This is not a negligible percentage, during your teaching career, it is almost guaranteed to find yourself in the situation where you have a student with a learning disorder sign up with you. In most cases, these children will have higher than average IQs and they will be experts in using their strengths to compensate for their difficulties making it really hard for you to spot the problem if it hadn’t been mentioned earlier by the parent.
Here is my story with Sara, a student with Dyslexia:
Sara was 7 years old student when she started her first piano lesson with me. After the introductory meeting that I had with the mother, who mentioned nothing about Sara being dyslexic. I started her on the regular method books that I usually use. Sara is an extremely intelligent child with an extremely good auditory memory and an excellent ear. In no time we moved through our first preparatory book. Everything looked perfect, and I was completely unaware that Sara was memorizing everything and pretending to read. Her excellent memory and her excellent ear combined with an excellent sense of rhythm allowed her to zoom through the book and she gave me the impression that everything was great. We finished the first book and moved on to the next. This time the lessons started becoming a little bit more complicated and longer, it was taking Sara more time to memorize, we started to slow down. Me being still inexperienced in this situation, I thought that Sara was getting a little bored and not practicing at home as she used to. Little did I know how much she was struggling to memorize because she wasn’t able to read and memorizing everything was getting more and more difficult with time. In her new book, there are many elements involved; dynamics, articulation, more complicated rhythm. Sara needed to keep her eyes fixed on the score following line by line in order to be able to play well, but instead, she was looking at her hands ignoring everything and trying to keep up, every time she made a mistake she insisted on starting from the beginning because this was the way she memorized her piece. Sadly, we found ourselves in a difficult situation that needed a solution. When I talked to her mother asking how Sara was doing in school and whether she had issues with her reading, her mom told me that she had dyslexia! We had to retrace many steps and change the books. Unfortunately, Sara was extremely discouraged and felt that she failed. It took me quite a while to get her back to her previous enthusiasm about piano lessons and I learned how to be extra vigilant, observant during the first few lessons with any new student I have.
Here are the signs that I learned to watch out for during the first few lessons with any new student to avoid disappointments in the future, when you sign up a new student, keeping a watchful eye for these signs may save you months of later frustration and extra work:
In all of the cases, these signs seemed to fall under 3 main categories; behavioral, physical, and performance signs.
Unable to deal with change:
When you find yourself in a situation where any small change; whether it is changing the piano you teach on, changing the lesson structure, changing the routine, changing the setup of the room, becomes a real challenge and sometimes lead to acting out or a tantrum that is out of proportion of the change itself then you have to keep your watch these signs may indicate a presence of a learning disorder.
Let me tell you the story of Zack, my 15-year-old student who is on the autism spectrum:
Zack had been taking lessons with me for a couple of months on the grand piano when he came in and saw that the grand piano wasn’t there and instead he was going to have the lesson on a digital piano instead. He had a major tantrum, wanting the grand piano back and refusing to have the lesson on the digital. No matter how much his mother or I tried to convince him, nothing worked. He cried and shouted and pleaded. In the end, we had to cancel the lesson. Of course, I could have avoided the situation had I warned him the lesson before and explained to him what was going to happen. I needed to be proactive and I claim complete responsibility for this unfortunate incident. But I wanted to share with you the extent of stress change can have on some children indicating the presence of a disorder or disability of some sort.
Difficulty in communicating:
If you notice that your student has difficulty speaking, expressing his/her feelings, or difficulty understanding new concepts sometimes these symptoms come with delayed speech and sometimes not. This difficulty in communication leads to building up frustration and sometimes acting out due to the inability of self-expression. All of these signs indicate the possibility of a learning disorder you need to watch out for.
Difficulty staying focused and short attention span and quickly frustrated:
Does your student find it difficult to stay on task long enough to learn new concepts? Is your student easily distracted and continuously interrupts the lesson by talking about random unrelated subjects. Does it seem as if it is taking you forever to convince your student to start playing his piece, write on his worksheet, answer a question because he seems that he is always more interested to chat about random things, distracted by the stuff lying on your desk, or the sounds coming from the street outside? If this is a real struggle and is happening during every single lesson, there is a big chance that your student has a learning difficulty.
Not able to work independently:
Do you have the feeling 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? Is it impossible for your student to practice without being prompted by the parent? Do you have to remind your student to take his books back home and not leave them in the studio every single lesson?
Does it seem that your student is completely dependent on you and it is impossible to leave him to work without continuous prompting? This is almost a sure sign that you have a learning disability.
Inability to sit still for a few minutes:
Is your student continuously fidgeting with the need to keep moving, completely unable to sit through and play even only a few measures without kicking the piano, stamping on the pedals, rocking, or moving on the stool in an extremely exaggerated manner? This is a sure warning sign of a presence of a disorder of some sort.
Weakness of muscle and manual dexterity:
All new piano students need time to develop manual dexterity, however, if you notice that your student has an exaggerated difficulty controlling the fingers independently and playing with all of them, continuously needing to look down in order to move the desired specific finger, or maybe on other occasions, you may notice that your student always mixes up the second and third fingers, always playing the middle note of a triad with her second instead of the 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 difficulty distinguishing the left hand from the right hand or playing the right-hand part of the music with the left hand and vice versa, and if this seems to happen too many times, this could be a sign of a learning disorder to watch out for.
Difficulty reading the notes and tracking the score:
Reading notes is not a simple task. When we learn to read in school, the first thing we learn is that different shapes make different sounds. A, B, C have different sounds because they have different shapes. In music, however, this doesn't apply, and we have to re-learn the concept that different shapes mean different sounds. Now the shape of the note gives it a different value and not a different sound. It is the place where the note is on the staff is that determines the sound of the note. Add to this knowing where each note falls on the piano which finger goes where and so many other variables. Consequently, a child with a learning disorder is more likely to have a problem in learning how to read notes. What might trip you up here, is what used to happen to me when I first started my career. Students with learning disabilities are masters at hiding and compensating for their difficulties, most of them are very intelligent and were able to memorize and trick me into thinking that they were reading while in fact, they were memorizing all the time. In other cases, your student may not have a problem reading the notes themselves, however, he/she has a different problem. Your student is continuously getting lost and unable to track the score without losing track and asking to start from the beginning and you find yourself having to point to the sheet all the time. This is another warning sign to keep an eye on.
Being able to catch these signs early on means you are able to be proactive, choose your material wisely, plan your lessons efficiently and work with the abilities and strengths of your student instead of bumping into walls, getting frustrated, feeling like a failure, and starting all over again once you later realize the problem. All humans have an excellent ability to learn almost anything if the learning procedure was designed to work with their own strengths, talents, and abilities instead of their weaknesses and difficulties.