Teaching Beginners with Special Needs

Written by Randall Faber and Mary Kathryn Archuleta

If you are a piano teacher, you have likely considered opening your studio, and your heart, to the 1 in 150 children diagnosed with an autistic-spectrum disorder or other impairment. Music lessons provide the structural regularity that children with special needs require. And, within that structure, it is possible to expand the child’s repertoire of functioning. What techniques do you need to know to work with these children? We’ll explore some fundamentals in this series of articles, with a focus on Applied Behavior Analysis.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a well-documented approach to the science of behavior that offers an important strategy for piano teaching. ABA has been used by therapists and teachers in the treatment of children diagnosed with autism or related disabilities for over 30 years. ABA therapy programs typically require 15 to 40 hours per week at costs ranging from $2500 to $5000 per month. In contrast, the private piano lesson is a mere 30 to 45 minutes per week with monthly tuition of $100 to $200. So the scope is different, yet the intervention activities are very similar if we incorporate the ABA process into our teaching.

In working with autistic children, much of the teacher’s attention must be devoted to influencing student behavior. We typically assume compliant, focused behavior from our students. With the special-needs child, this is rarely the case. It becomes our responsibility to harness and direct the student’s attention. This is both a prerequisite to music learning and a secondary objective of the lesson.

The first step is to segment a skill into its most elemental components. Too much information or too much difficulty will overwhelm. It is impossible to control the student’s attention when there is too much information. Clarity of instruction is critical for students with special needs. So take the subject in small bites and in incremental, small steps. Often you’ll want to modify the standard written instructions.

Use a non-verbal prompt. A prompt is a non-verbal instruction appropriate to the task. It can be a demonstration, such as physical hand-over-hand gesture, a rhythmic nod of the head, or pointing to one’s own eyes or ears. A prompt clarifies the requested task, but also cues attention.

Use step-by-step trials and reward each positive performance. The ABA process involves “discrete trials” in which the therapist monitors and rewards appropriate, on-task behavior. This is very useful for the piano lesson. When the student gives an appropriate response, or in some cases after two or three repetitions of a correct response, the teacher gives a positive reinforcer. A reinforcer is any positive consequence that leads the student to want to repeat the correct response. You might use M&M’s, a stuffed animal saying “Good job,” a puppet, stickers, a gold star, or enthusiastic praise. Select a reinforcer that is fun and has the student’s interest. Use of reinforcers elicit s cooperation in the lesson and inspires practice at home.

Students with special needs typically have difficulty with self-monitoring. So work first toward distinguishing between a response that is off-task and a response that is on-task. At first, we’re not even looking for a correct execution of the task but for an appropriate attempt at execution. The student is taught that there is a difference between an appropriate attempt and a response that is unrelated to the task. So, initially, we reinforce any appropriate response. Later, we reinforce the correct response. This is just an application of the step-by-step mandate. Remember to be patient and be willing to experiment.

A summary strategy is to help students to listen, watch, and imitate. Progress is incremental. Small successes are always praised and rewarded. As progress is made, the teacher can systematically reduce guidance so that the student responds independently. Sometimes this can happen within the lesson segment. But be patient; sometimes it takes years of study. And that is okay. The benefits are nonetheless real and important to that individual child—with their own special need.

2 Responses to “Teaching Beginners with Special Needs”

  1. Dr. Penny "Poppy" AntTHOPolos December 1, 2016 at 3:05 pm #

    Mr. Faber, thank you for touching on this very apt topic. The many benefits of high-quality instruction on an instrument–not just the musical/artistic skills, but also the cognitive/academic, psychological,/emotional, social, and recreational, etc., benefits–these, of course, cannot be reserved only for children and adults who are free of truly challenging hindrances to learning.

    My studio is a bit unique in that my husband is a psychiatrist and specialist in regard to cognitive and psychological difficulties (some that are fairly common, and some that are not at all) that students face, and he’s, thus, a valuable resource that allows me to teach, skillfully, all my varied, truly students, all of whom are great kids and adults–and budding musicians–and all of whom have vastly differing strengths and areas of improvement. I’ve sent–hmm–“typical”? [well, there isn’t really a standard for truly “typical” for my and your very individual students, I’d say] to Peabody, Oberlin, CCM, etc.; and I’ve worked with awesome kids who have what most of us consider true “disabilities.” (And not long ago, a student of mine fit into both these categories!) And, teachers, while it’s rare to have a consulting “studio psychiatrist,” etc., many resources exist to help you, though the best may require some work to find. If you’re up for the challenge and the giving of a gift so special for children with atypical needs, feel free to contact me for some help (gratis!), or keep an eye on my now-being-revamped (s-l-o-w-l-y!) site GiftedPianists.Education because I’ll, shortly after the turn of the year (2017), have a section containing some good information on this topic (about which I feel very strongly)! Thank you again, Mr. Faber! (Poppy@DC-Chamber-Music.org)

  2. Marla Atkins April 13, 2017 at 11:55 pm #

    Hi !

    I really enjoyed your article and find it very helpful. I have some hallenges working with a student who is a very intelligent 9 year old with severe adhd and Aspergers. He gets very impatient and i must always keep lessons short.He is in Accelerated Piano Adventures book one. Mr. Faber, do you have any more advice as how to work with this child ? Thank you so much for your time and this very informative article.