Only a professional can diagnose a learning disorder. The purpose of this post is only to draw your attention to certain signs that indicate the need to dig in deeper in order to be able to modify your method to become more suitable for your student to guarantee success.
Statistically speaking, at least 15% of children have some kind of learning difficulty. However, since many of these children have higher than average IQs and they are experts in using their strengths to compensate for certain difficulties it makes it hard for the teacher to spot them. Especially if you are only seeing your student for 30 minutes each week.
If your student is continuously showing some of the signs mentioned below it is time to seek help and do some changes and tweaks to your approach in order to avoid frustration and guarantee results.
These warning signs fall under 3 main categories:
1. Behavioral Signs
Unable to deal with change
Whether it is changing the piano you teach on, changing the lesson structure, changing the routine, changing the setup of the room, any change might become a real challenge that might lead to a meltdown.
More likely to have tantrums or meltdowns for what seems like small incidents to you. Most of the time out of frustration and difficulty in communication.
Difficulty in communicating
Difficulty speaking, expressing feelings due to delay in speech or not. Difficulty understanding concepts and communication in general.
2. Physical Signs
Inability to sit still for a few minutes:
Continuous and exaggerated fidgeting with the need to continuously move and the inability to sit through and play a few measures without kicking the piano, stamping on the pedals, nonstop moving on the stool, and similar behavior.
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 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.
3. Performance Signs
Difficulty reading the notes:
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 and 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.
Difficulty staying focused:
Your student finds it difficult to stay on task long enough to learn concepts. He/She is easily distracted and continuously interrupts the lesson by talking about random unrelated subjects.
Difficulty tracking the sheet music:
You may find your student is continuously getting lost and unable to track the score without losing track and asking to start from the beginning. You find yourself having to point to the sheet all the time.
Cannot work independently
Difficulty following directions keeps forgetting the books either at the studio or at home, never practices unless prompted by the parent and this is not coming out of being careless or lazy. Almost impossible to leave your student on the bench to play his piece alone while you go fetch a book from your shelf, otherwise the student will stop working until you come back. Different signs of total dependency are a sign that you have to watch for.
These signs are not enough to determine that a student has a learning difficulty. However, they serve as a good indicator. A professional assessment is necessary to diagnose a learning difficulty. Nevertheless, noticing one or more of these signs might call for the need for you to search for different approaches and focus more to use your student's unique strengths and abilities to overcome the difficulties.