What You Need to Know to Teach Piano Students with Special Needs

When it comes to teaching piano students with special needs – teachers can be very nervous. You truly want to be all inclusive and spread music to every child, but maybe you feel you don’t have the expertise to teach these kids.

Teaching piano to students with special needs or learning difficulties

Well, good news! I’m here to help. And as long as you’re willing to keep trying to adapt, change, and learn you too can successfully teach piano students with special needs.

I don’t claim to be any kind of a special needs expert. But I do have experience working with piano students with special needs – such as ASD, down syndrome, ADHD and dyslexia – and I’ve learned a lot from those students.

The first step you need to take is to understand what these terms mean for us as piano teachers.

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Understanding Special Needs Diagnoses

Every single piano student with special needs (even with the same diagnosis) is going to be unique. There is no one-size-fits-all model.

Having said that, it is very useful to understand the diagnoses and what they mean for the kid sitting in front of you.

These explanations are by no means exhaustive but are simply an overview of the symptoms that are most relevant to piano teachers. I strongly recommend you look up your student’s diagnosis to get a better understanding.

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is one of the most common diagnoses found in classrooms today, although I don’t think many of us are aware just how varied it can be.

Piano students with dyslexia may have some of the following characteristics:

  • Delayed speech development in early childhood and sometimes mixing up or mispronouncing words
  • Visual disturbances when reading – describing words as moving around or blurring
  • Difficulty following a sequence of directions
  • Slow and poor handwriting skills
  • Frequent daydreaming or zoning out of conversations
  • Confusing left/right and up/down
  • Doesn’t work well with time pressures or competitive tasks
  • Learns better through hands-on, experiential teaching

Although you might expect all of the reading issues of dyslexia to carry through to music reading, that’s not always the case. Pay special attention to whether your piano student with dyslexia confuses directions such as left/right and up/down – this is very important for music reading and good to be aware of.

Down syndrome

Children with down syndrome have physical, as well as intellectual challenges. Here’s a few to bare in mind when teaching piano:

  • “Floppy” joints or low muscle tone
  • Short fingers
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Short attention span
  • Preference for visual and language learning
  • Difficulty with numeracy

The tendency towards visual learning is good to note, as colour coding may be a very useful tool for students with down syndrome. More on this in the teaching strategies section.

ASD

ASD stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder, and now officially (to the best of my knowledge) encompasses what was formerly called Asperger’s. Some kids may still come to you with an Asperger’s diagnosis but most younger kids will have now been diagnosed with ASD.

In general, an ASD diagnosis means the child might display some of the following attributes:

  • Delayed speech development and preferring not to speak or speak in shorter sentences
  • Not responding to their name being called and avoiding eye-contact
  • Not picking up on sarcasm or implications – taking what people say very literally
  • Behaviour that may seem rude due to not picking up on social conventions
  • Highly specific interests in particular subjects and disinterest in areas outside this specialty
  • Strong preference for following routines
  • Sensory processing issues such as difficulty dealing with certain textures, too much brightness or too many stimuli

If you have a piano student with ASD I would pay particular attention to your student’s communication, preference for routine, and any sensory processing issues as you get to know him. These characteristics are very useful to be aware of when planning for lessons.

For more on the ASD diagnosis (and diagnoses in general), listen to this podcast with Lydia Meem. Truly excellent advice for piano teachers from a clinical psychologist.

ADHD

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Many people understand this to mean just “wriggly” but it’s actually a lot more layered and nuanced than that.

Some of the symptoms of ADHD that are most relevant to piano teachers include:

  • Trouble paying attention
  • Trouble sitting still (even for a very short time)
  • Impulsivity, acting before thinking
  • Appearing forgetful and misplacing things regularly
  • Not sticking with tasks or following through to completion
  • Appearing not to be listening
  • Interrupting conversations
  • Difficulty with organisation

If the child you’re teaching does have a strong hyperactivity component of ADHD you’ll need to plan carefully not to keep him sitting for more than a few minutes at a time. You should also pay attention to what type of language is most effective to get him to follow instructions. (More on this in the teaching strategies below.)

Teaching Strategies for Piano Students with Special Needs

These three teaching strategies are great ones to have in your toolkit when you’re teaching piano students with special needs. Keeping these strategies in mind should help you to adapt your teaching to a variety of student needs.

1. Colour Coding

Colour can be a great aid for piano students with special needs. This won’t be suitable for every student of course, but when it is a good fit I can make all the difference.

Try colour coding:

  • Notes on the staff
  • Piano keys
  • Segments of the lesson (more on this below)
  • Note directions such as up, down, same
  • Intervals such as steps and skips

Really colour can be applied anywhere you need to highlight a difference that your student is having trouble seeing.

Colour coding is especially useful for students with down syndrome and dyslexia, although many students with ASD and ADHD will also benefit from the use of colour.

Be aware that for some piano students with special needs, colour could actually be more of a hindrance than a help. Students with ASD or ADHD in particular might be distracted by too many colours. In fact, sometimes black and white method books are best so that there are minimal distractions on the page.

Pay attention to your students needs and observe how he learns best.

2. Storytelling

If you’re having trouble connecting and engaging with your student, storytelling and analogies can be great teaching tools.

Bring your student into the story by choosing a topic that interests him. For example, if your piano student with ADHD is a big fan of trains, and you need him to get to the end of the piece without stopping – you might explain to him how it’s like a train running on a schedule. The train needs to arrive at its destination on time and not get side tracked along the way.

Some method books that take a story-based approach may be also be useful for piano students with special needs. Wunderkeys, Piano Safari and Tales of a Musical Journey all do a wonderful job of capturing a students’ imagination using stories.

As with the use of colour coding, storytelling may or may not be a good fit for your student. Some kiddos will simply find the story distracting. Try it out in your lessons and see if your student is less or more focused on the task at hand using this approach.

3. Clear Directions

Almost all students can benefit from clear directions of course, however piano students with special needs will do best with extremely plain instructions.

When you’re teaching a child with special needs you need to learn to remove all the frills and superfluous words from your speech. This is trickier than it sounds but it’s worth developing this skill.

For instance, instead of saying:

“OK Jenny, that was lovely, thank you. Now let’s give that boogie piece a go, how did practice go with that one?”

(Look at all those extra words that hold no real value there!)

Try cutting it down to:

“Now play the Boogie no.3 please.”

Or even…

“Play Boogie no.3”

This is especially hard to do as being polite is so ingrained in us. It feels rough and unfeeling to give our directions so plainly – but it may be just what your student needs.

Students with ASD and ADHD are especially prone to being distracted by our extraneous words. It takes too much translating work to take what you said, and turn it into what you want him to do next.

So try being as clear and direct (even verging on blunt) as possible. It could make all the difference for your student’s success at the piano.

Thembi Shears went into more detail on this in her fantastic interview with Tim Topham here. This is especially valuable if you have students with ASD.

Lesson Planning for Piano Students with Special Needs

Structure and routine can make or break your lessons with some students. Children with ASD might have a strong preference for routine and procedure, but almost all piano students with special needs will thrive when there is a transparent structure.

Your other students probably just pick up on this routine as a matter of course. Students with special needs however can benefit from an explicit discussion and labelling of the segments of the lesson.

Lesson Focus Aid

The lesson focus aid is a tool that I originally made for a student of mine who had a diagnosis of ADD and Asperger’s. Having a visual representation like this that both the student and teacher can see throughout the lesson is very valuable.

With this tool, your student will know what’s coming next, as well as how far he is through the lesson. This is very important so that he can feel comfortable, and is not distracted by wondering what the plan is.

Setting Goals & Expectations

Depending on the degree of your student’s special needs, any level of accomplishment may or may not be possible. As with any student, try to meet the student where he’s at and help him reach his potential – whatever that means for him – while cultivating a love and appreciation for music.

I think it’s of utmost importance when working with piano students with special needs, that you have open and honest communication with the parents from the outset. Parents will often know far more than us about how their child learns, and the best ways to work with him to help him succeed.

Piano students with special needs will often need more help at home, especially in the beginning stages. Make sure that the piano parents are ready to participate. It doesn’t matter if they know anything about piano or music of course, just that they’re involved and supportive at home.

To make the lesson and practice goals really clear, try this assignment sheet. The lesson section at the top is particularly helpful if your piano student with special needs has trouble staying on task throughout the lesson.

Keep It Positive

First and foremost, my main goal for every student’s piano lesson is that he has a positive learning experience. This holds doubly true for piano students with special needs.

School might be a struggle. Kids with special needs often have very low self-esteem and I know what music can do for them to improve their confidence.

Piano lessons can also be extremely enriching and rewarding for the parents of the student with special needs. Seeing their child get up and perform in front of a crowd is special for any parent, but moments like this can be even more important when the rest of life might be a challenge.

So keep striving to connect with your piano students with special needs – and teach in the way they can learn best. Keep learning, exploring and getting out of your teaching comfort zone.

The reward is worth the effort.

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26 thoughts on “What You Need to Know to Teach Piano Students with Special Needs”

  1. After reading this, I think one of my students may have dyslexia. He constantly confuses RH and LH, reads music very slowly, and mixes up notes. I’ve never dealt with a student who has had this much of a struggle with RH and LH though. He’s 9 years old, been with me for almost 3 years now, and still struggles with it just as much as he did when he started lessons. His mom has talked to me before about him being a “slow learner,” but has never told me he was dyslexic. Unfortunately, I’m discovering this too late to really do much about it. He’s moving away, so he only has one more lesson with me. I would however, love any advice on helping students who constantly struggle with RH and LH (for future reference).

    Reply
    • One thing that can help with L-R issues is highlighting the two staves (you could do it all through the music, but I would start with just marking to the left of the staves): blue for RH (like the sky, which is high), and green for LH (like the grass, which is low). Then give them similar coloured bracelets or elastics to wear on their wrists.

      Reply
    • If it’s a constant struggle, I might just come up with a coping mechanism for the time being such as writing/colouring the back of a hand, or wearing coloured wristbands. I think for the most part (from my unqualified experience) this works out in time.

      Reply
  2. This is an excellent article, thank you so much! I have three special needs students: two on the autism spectrum and the third whom I thought was autistic might actually be ADHD, so the advice above is extremely useful! Thanks again!
    Juanita

    Reply
  3. I found this fun game to help with rh, lh, etc. from Meijer’s but here it is on Amazon. Sorry for the long link address!

    https://www.amazon.com/LCR-Left-Center-RightTM-Dice/dp/B003I64OT6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1500853250&sr=8-2&keywords=left+center+right+dice+game+in+tin

    I play this with little kids and we invite a parent or sibling in to join as it’s for 3 or more players. The game is fun and even exciting so the reinforcement of r and l seems to be quietly absorbed! I even bought a second game of this so kids could check it out of my game library to take home and play!

    Reply
  4. Thank you for this article! I have a new student with ADHD among other physical issues, and her older sister I suspect is on the Autism spectrum. You have some very helpful suggestions. I have been using the story method with the little girl’s subject of choice-cats! Which happens to be my favorite thing next to music too, so we connect well there 🙂 We do lots of high and low sound stories using kittens and big dogs or tigers or other low sounding animals. I think it is helping her keep high and low straight much better.

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  5. My son was just diagnosed with ASD, Level 1, which used to be called Asperger’s. So yes, Asperger’s falls under the Spectrum now, but the clinician will gives varying levels it seems. Also, ASD persons have a very difficult time with auditory processing of directions, so visual prompts and directions should be given as much as possible…which is a very difficult transition in parenting after 11 years of giving verbal directions! Thanks for your post! I am starting a student with dyslexia and the color coding is going to be our go-to!

    Reply
  6. today a girl with nonverbal autism had her very first piano and singing class from me today and when I was teaching her the vocal warmup and to drop her jaw to get sound out better she had a huge meltdown because she can not get her voice out and I tried to get her in deep pressure and she was holding both my hands tightly I said to her nicely I have to have my hands for piano and she just dropped on the floor and was hurting herself and at this point I got emotional and started crying the mother had to run to the store and I called her she got stuck in traffic and thankfully I have the piano in the same room as a therapy room and I have like gymnastic mats so children can play on them when they get their break but I managed to lay the girl down on the mats and get her deep pressure and her mom came and she had the wheelchair of the girl with restraints on it she did not want to be strapped in and her meltdown got worse the girl puked and she was making louder noises and they had to leave and I said to the mom that I would pray for the girl when they left I was in tears so I played piano and sang the beauty and the beast end reprise from broadway and that was like the prayer because the girl loves that song from broadway but next time what can I do to avoid a meltdown the meltdown was hard to watch can I give her like a longer break or what

    Reply
    • That’s intense Olga. I’m sorry you and your student had that experience. If you’re going to continue though I think the parent should always be there and you should ask their advice about what works for their child. You’ll learn to notice the warning signs if you do continue and hopefully how to avoid them.

      Reply
  7. I have a question I would like to teach singing and piano to a girl with nonverbal autism can do you think she will be able to do it and do you teach singing

    Reply
    • No I don’t teach singing. And that’s honestly such a general question, there’s no way to know until you try. Just meet with her and try some very basic things and see how it goes.

      Reply
  8. Hello yes the mother anisa did stay in the room and I got the girl with autism aurora to tell me on my iPad I have for her to get me to tell me how she feels without siblings and she touched on the word alone and the mother does not have a husband I knew that from the very start she told me anyway aurora goes to a normal school in a normal class she does things easier but she has a friend who does not have autism and her name is arista they are both the same age nine and are in the same class and they are also neighbors and arista really wanted to learn piano so the both mothers talked anisa talked with anita and right now every day in the summer aurora is getting piano class and this past Monday anisa told me about arista and I said that I could give aurora and arista piano at the same time like a group class and anisa said that she would say that to anita and she said sure so this is the first week me working with arista I worked with aurora since January and since Monday anisa has stayed in the room she gives arista the rides to the class and back home after that and what I have been doing is to teach the girls from 1pm to 5pm 1pm to 2pm I play them the piano and they have to dance around the room with the tempo like stacato fast and you know from 2pm to 3pm they have like a quiz I play them the piano and they have to like answer the letters or tempo and aurora does it with the iPad from 3pm to 4pm they get piano I sit in the middle of them then from 4pm to 5pm they have singing and now aurora has improved because I explained to her nicely what I mean by dropping the jaw to get sound out better and aurora now this week she has been singing words she still can not get her voice out to communicate and everything has been going well

    Reply
  9. Hello the girl I am teaching singing and piano to she does not communicate at all I am trying to get her to sing but she just can not can you help me out I am sad for her

    Reply
  10. Hi I want to teach my 15 year old daughter with mild autism piano I am a pianist and I want to teach her but I don’t know how to start now my daughter does tap dance jazz dance native dance rumba dance and ballet dance she loves dance and we also tried piano with another lady when my daughter was 5 and had just gotten diagnosed but she had a lot of meltdowns with new people and we stopped but now she wants to return to doing piano and I would like to teach her and she is also in choir at school and she is a great singer but I would like you to help me out on how I can start and she can read notes very well the only thing she has trouble with is she has meltdowns in public situations when she gets overstimulated and it’s too much now I don’t have an email so reply’ back to me on here please

    Reply
    • Mista a lot of the kids who I teach piano are also in choir at their school and the meltdowns in public I do feel you and if you get stares in public when your daughter has meltdowns ignore the people I taught a boy named Michael caulford who died because he had shaken baby syndrome and he was completely nonverbal in a wheelchair and made vocalization sounds to talk and his foster parents mentioned they got a lot of stares often when they were in the like in the mall or outside and nicola I would like you to please watch this documentary on Michael it’s on YouTube just search up shaken baby syndrome Michael caulford and the documentary is on YouTube I don’t know if you have any studnents you teach who are like Michael but it’s very powerful and has a lot of info

      Reply
  11. Nicola I am a piano teacher and I teach kids who are special and many kids with autism come to me there is one girl in particular who has autism and has been progressing very nice she is 20 and she has been with me since she was 2 her improvement is very nice do you think I could refer her and the parents to a professional lady who is a pianist in our area for my student to be taught by the woman and actually my student goes to the Wilfred Laurie university here in Kitchener and the woman who I tell you about works at the university I’m going to see my student tomorrow and I will let you know what the parents and the student say

    Reply
  12. Hi, are there any recommendations of piano teachers in the San Francisco area for my 8 year old daughter who has developmental delays. It would be good if the individual is patient and has teaching experience with special needs children. My email is yh4152001@yahoo.com. Would appreciate any help on this matter. Thanks!

    Reply

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