Challenging behaviour is not uncommon in piano studios that welcome all types of children and believe in inclusion. Teaching children with special needs requires you to handle endless forms of emotions and learning styles, and requires the wisdom to understand where some forms of misbehaviour are coming from so that you can guide your students to the place where they are ready and able to learn. Understanding the behaviour is the first step into taking appropriate action to lead the child to behave in a socially appropriate manner. You might notice that sometimes a student is refusing to cooperate and ignoring requests, has the susceptibility to go through tantrums, or sometimes goes through a complete meltdown, and on some occasions becomes aggressive.
When facing such a situation, check for one or more of the following roots which usually lead to misbehavior:
Is the student having difficulty understanding and communicating with you?
Is the student usually highly anxious and easily gets stressed out when facing what he/she perceives as a difficult situation?
Does your student Feel easily overwhelmed by the environment?
Most of the time, you find out that one of the above is where this unacceptable behaviour is coming from.
While the best medicine is prevention, however, in many cases we find ourselves missing the signs and are on the verge of, or maybe in the middle of an unpleasant situation. Added to this, is the fact that students will most probably be showing up at your studio for only 30 minutes every week and given the time limitation of the session, such episodes can be stressful for the parent, the teacher as well as the child.
ORACLE (Organization for Autism Research): "Dealing with tantrums and anger is easier and more effective if you understand the stages of a tantrum and know interventions you can use at each stage."
Catching the early signs of a tantrum or a meltdown and breaking the cycle before it escalates is by far more effective. 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. I talked about the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum HERE.
When you witness the first signs of a behaviour change, you might be standing on the edge of a meltdown or tantrum and you need to take proper action to break the cycle. Be on the watch for the initial rumbling, tensing of muscles, or any indication of discomfort and intervene without becoming part of the problem:
Remove the child from the environment causing the difficulty which in most cases is caused by one of the following:
Routine change: Do you follow a predictable lesson plan and keep the lesson structure predictable? Going through this schedule at the beginning of every lesson keeps things in check. Click HERE to get a lot of ideas and helpful strategies plus a FREE downloadable lesson planner.
Sensory overload: 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? Is the volume of your electrical piano on max? Are you wearing a strong perfume? Sometimes what we perceive as normal is actually overwhelming for a student with ASD. Knowing your student more and talking to the parent will help you avoid all of these sensory overload sources.
The task at hand is too complicated or too easy and your student is bored: Working at the appropriate level is key. Some students get very anxious and worried if they feel they do not understand what you are teaching them. If you get any sign of distress stemming out of a situation where you are trying to teach a new concept, step back a little and leave it for later. The student might not be ready yet.
An overwhelming situation: Recitals are an example of an overwhelming situation. They can be really tricky. They are noisy, full of people, full of unknowns. The place may be new, too bright. Everyone is excited and it is stressful for most children.
Your main goal is to notice any of the early signs of change of behaviour and redirect the whole situation, remove the student from the source or the root of the problem and defuse the event completely. Unfortunately, this will need practice and in many cases, you might not be able to make this happen. Suddenly, you find yourself facing a raging child. In such a difficult situation, most of the time it is too late and you have to accept the fact that the tantrum or meltdown will need to run its course before you can move on with your lesson. The most important thing to do if things accelerate into a tantrum is to de-escalate by remaining calm to show that you are in control of the situation and put a distance in order to allow the student to calm down.
When I find myself in this rare but very unfortunate situation. I use this event as an opportunity to learn more about my student, about myself, and about the situation. I end the lesson, claim responsibility, and reschedule. After all, I was the one in charge and I didn't pay enough attention to what was going on.