Updated: May 29, 2021
Accepting students with disabilities or special needs is a big decision since it involves extra research, studying new techniques, experimenting with different methods, and a lot more work on your part. We want to be inclusive and share our knowledge with all children but sometimes lack the confidence or the willingness to do the extra work.
If you want to embark on this journey the following tips will help put you on the right track.
1. Know your student.
Regardless of whether your student comes with a diagnosis or not, keep in mind that each student is different. It is very useful to understand the diagnosis and what it means, and you should research and study more about these diagnoses when you accept a student with a specific disability. However, do not fall into the trap of believing that all students sharing the same diagnosis are the same.
2. Teaching is similar to building a house.
Teaching and building a secure house that will not collapse is exactly the same. You cannot build a layer of bricks on a lower layer with missing bricks and gaps. The building will not be stable. It simply will not work. Check first if you have all the needed elements. Here are a few examples to demonstrate what I mean:
A child with poor muscle tone and finger dexterity will not be able to use the correct fingers to play on the piano. No matter how hard you try, you will only frustrate the child and yourself. First, you will have to dedicate part of the lessons to work on strengthing this weakness.
Before telling your student not to look at her hands while playing, make sure she knows the geography of the piano without any hesitation and she knows where the notes are, and she can play with all her fingers without having to search for every note.
Some students will need you to point to notes on the page while playing the piano because they cannot follow with their own eyes without help. Don't expect to sit back and watch them play from a distance.
3. Set your short-term and long-term goals while allowing for flexibility.
Setting goals will help you move forward faster. be concise and clear about what you are trying to achieve. If, for example, your long-term goal is to teach your student how to read music, this is great. You need to lay the correct foundation before starting with note reading. List all the skills that a pianist uses to read music and start layering these skills one by one. Don't be disheartened, if after you think you did everything that you need to do and it still doesn't work. This only means that you still have some missing bricks in your foundation that you need to fill. Your work now is to identify these gaps and fill them in.
4. Have a clear plan for every lesson for at least the first month and keep your plan predictable.
Children with disabilities thrive on predictability and routine. It gives them comfort. It will make your lessons flow smoothly and effectively without tantrums or meltdowns. Have your plan ready in front of you with the necessary visuals. If your student knows what to expect, they are more likely to cooperate with your instructions and teaching.
5. Color coding is a powerful tool, don't be scared to use it.
You will not understand the power of color until you start using it. There is a lot of research on this subject that demonstrates its effectiveness. Don't hesitate to use it as appropriate. I wrote a post on color-coding. You can read it HERE and you can download "The Easier Piano Book" which is a color-coded primer piano book HERE.
6. Celebrate every tiny success.
Many times children with special needs have low self-esteem due to the many struggles they encounter at school and other places. Make sure to stay positive and encouraging and celebrate every achievement big or small, cultivate their love of music, and let your studio be an enriching and happy experience in their lives.