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Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting to Teach Piano to Students with Disabilities

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Albert Einstein

It is not as complicated as most people think.

Since I was already an established piano teacher successfully teaching piano, I already had what it takes to extend my services to students with disabilities, I just didn’t know it. I merely needed to learn how to adjust a few things here and there to help me on the way. Since the list of learning disorders and other disabilities is inexhaustible, I got into the trap of thinking that I need a completely different set of tactics and a huge amount of learning before I started. However, in reality, I was faced with the situation of working with a single student who has a certain challenge. I made this my first step towards learning, I studied this special case in-depth, learning all the different strategies that will help my specific student, learning more about the diagnoses and about the problems that I will most probably face during the lessons. I made an appointment with his therapist who gave me tons of advice to help me adjust my lessons to best help my student learn, and I and moved from there. This process made me realize that I already have all the skillset that I needed, I only had to tweak a few things here and there and do some changes on how to present the lessons, and that’s how I took my first steps. Not much later after that, I had another student with the same diagnosis referred to me by my first student’s mother, this time everything went much smoother and I was prepared and knew exactly what I needed to do.

The diagnosis doesn’t define the student.

I shouldn’t be intimidated by the diagnoses, it is only a term that I needed in order to help me understand the best way my student learns new ideas and concepts, and in most cases, diagnoses come with a combination of challenges that may seem unrelated. Studying about them helped me tremendously in order to be prepared and well informed of what I might face during the lessons and not as a barrier to be used to prevent me from accepting to teach the student.

Over the years, I came to realize that every student is a whole new person with different abilities and disabilities regardless of the diagnosis or lack of it. I should never rely on the terms instead only use them as a learning tool. I some cases I found out that not all parents were willing to disclose their children’s diagnoses with me and was left alone to figure out things on my own.

All I needed to do is study each case on its own as I needed to, and with time, I accumulated enough information to deal with many types of disabilities and challenges.

Discussing long-term goals with the parents was crucial to my success.

Talking to the parents in depth before starting this journey was crucial to my success in teaching their children. It was absolutely necessary that I had a crystal clear idea of why they are signing up their children. What was the why that was driving them to come to me and invest their time and money? My experience with parents made me realize that many of them view piano lessons from a different perspective than mine. In many cases, parents of children with disabilities brought their children to me hoping that learning the piano will help their children with their school performance, communication skills, ability to focus, attention span, and many other challenges their children were facing and nothing at all with learning piano itself. I’m not sure if science has actually reached the point to indisputably confirm any of these claims. However, In every single one of these particular cases, I had to explain to the parent that what I did was teach their children how to play the piano and not to overcome any of the other challenges, regardless if this is going to be a by-product. I am not sure if it actually will help solve their other issues. I always aimed to underpromise and overdeliver. In the majority of the cases, parents and children are greatly satisfied, they report great results, and the quitting rate is extremely low in my studio.

I had to be very selective with my material and method books.

The method books that I was using with my typical students were not going to work in most cases and I had to restart using a different method book, wasting time and energy. This was a major setback because it gave the student the wrong impression that they failed at something and they get discouraged after this scenario and feel that they are starting from scratch, which in fact was my misjudgment in the first place and I failed to choose the correct book that is suitable for my particular student.

I am going to witness many ups and downs.

On some days my student will come in feeling great and will remember everything, read and play perfectly and have a great lesson, and on other days everything will seem to be forgotten and you seem to go back to square one. All of this with no apparent reason. I accepted the fact that I will have frustrating days that will make me feel like a failure. Teaching children with disabilities is extremely unpredictable, and with unpredictability comes discomfort. Teaching children, in general, is always unpredictable. However, with the addition of difficulty or a disability, the variants become wider and the oscillation bigger.

I had some days when the lesson was filled with continuous giggles and laughter with no apparent reason at all. I had other days when my student decided to hide under the table instead of taking part in the lesson. I also had days with tantrums because the lesson did not go in exactly the same steps as every other lesson. I had days when my student comes in and gives me the feeling that he has forgotten everything he learned.

These frustrating days happened no matter how much I tried to avoid them. These were the days that challenged you to grow as a teacher and an educator, I got the chance to know myself and my student better and to learn from my mistakes. These days made me rethink, reconsider, and find new ways and strategies to achieve my goals.

Predictability and routine are my dearest friends.

I used to believe that creativity comes with variety and with having prepared the most unusual and always different types of activities and lesson plans to keep my students engaged and happy during the lessons to later discover that this style is extremely stressful to most students with disabilities who crave predictability and routine, and need to know what they are going to do during the lesson and how.

In fact, what I needed to do was much simpler and required a lot less effort on my side, I needed to:

  • Create a lesson plan, and stick to it every single lesson for at least the first couple of months.

  • Share my lessons plan at the beginning of each lesson and explain how things are going to be done.

This reduced my lesson planning work by less than half, it helped me be prepared for every lesson and help my student feel more relaxed and accomplished after every lesson. What a relief!

I will witness meltdowns and tantrums.

When the first meltdown happened during one of my lessons with a student with autism, I completely felt like a failure. The effect of that episode carried with me through the day, I felt completely devastated at my lack of ability to deal with a seemingly simple situation. I kept playing the even over and over in my head thinking what exactly could I have done differently to avoid this unfortunate event. Little did I know that If you teach children with special needs you probably will have to go through at least one meltdown or tantrum. The event completely shifted my way of dealing with difficult situations. It was a great learning experience, it drove me to do a lot of reading on the subject. It was very important for me to grow and evolve as a teacher.

Communication isn’t going to be always easy.

I always considered myself a great communicator, I never expected to go through whole lessons feeling at loss. Students with autism, in particular, may have difficulties in expressing their feelings. Reading body language and any other signs that indicate that something is not quite right was crucial, I needed to become even a better communicator and learn how to read the slightest cues of changed attitude and behavior to avoid a lot of miscommunication with my students. Yet another opportunity for growth.



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