If you look at my almost 4-year-old son you would agree that he is a happy and healthy little boy. He is almost always smiling, has an incredible memory, and is almost as tall as his 6-year-old big sister.
If you observed him at his preschool or in a swimming lesson, you might jump to the conclusion that he is a brat or that I am a terrible mother who must let my child do whatever he wants.
You see, my son has an array of diagnoses and special needs that aren’t visible to the typical eye. His special needs are the result of early trauma that have affected his brain deeply. His needs manifest themselves in his behavior, his struggle to focus, his ability to transition from one activity to the next, his ability to keep his body in check and many other ways that make nearly every moment a struggle because his brain has difficulty processing all the information and stimuli around him.
We haven’t been able to just sign him up for any activity we think he might enjoy, and we often don’t attend group events, Sunday School or story times at the library. We have to be very thoughtful about what will allow him to be successful, and discuss with the teachers and group leaders whether or not they are equipped and open to learning about how to deal with a child that has special needs.
You might say that having a son with some extra challenges has created a soft spot in my heart for working with kids who have developmental delays or need a little bit of “outside the box” thinking to work with them. In my years of teaching piano lessons, I have worked with kids on the Autism Spectrum, children who struggle with Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD and even one who had vision difficulties. Often times, these kids have tried piano lessons before and had a negative experience. They have a teacher who is not willing to adjust expectations, or perhaps one who has labeled them a “bad kid” instead of understanding that the child’s brain might just be wired differently.
In my experience, music can often be an extremely positive outlet for kids who have developmental differences. It builds their confidence, allows them to express themselves and teaches them to continue to work hard at something. Speaking as a parent of a special needs kid, I cannot even begin to tell you how rewarding it is to see your child be successful at something — whether it’s being able to take a parent-tot music class because you have a music teacher who is warm and loving and willing to bend the rules, or have your kiddo sit for a hair cut because the barber was willing to open his shop 15 minutes early so that the hustle and bustle during regular hours won’t set your child off. These little victories are SO huge for kids with developmental differences and for their exhausted families.
So how do you make yours a studio that will accommodate these amazing children?
- Talk to the parents. They know their child better than anyone else and can give you pointers about what works and what doesn’t. Communicate with them about what you’re noticing during class and brainstorm ideas and solutions together.
- Educate yourself. Parents might be able to direct you to an article or two (no one said you have to read text books and become an expert!) that can explain a little bit more about the challenges their child faces.
- Work with other adults and professionals in the child’s life. I have one student who worked with an early intervention group, and an aide from this group attended lessons for a few weeks to help the child become comfortable in the setting and transition more easily from one activity to the next. I learned a great deal of tools and language that worked for my student simply from observing her! Parents have often also been willing to share with me reports and suggestions from psychologists and pediatricians that contain valuable insights and help.
- Be compassionate. It is easy to become frustrated with a child when it seems he is not listening or is being defiant, but think of these things as a “brain” issue and not an “attitude” issue.
- Break things down. If you give a child too many instructions at once, it can be easily overwhelming and frustrating. Try to simplify things and go through them step by step, even using visual schedules of your lessons or classes.
- Be willing to bend the rules. The little girl who has trouble focusing may need to smack chewing gum during class to help calm her brain. The 10-year-old who becomes dis-regulated after 10 minutes of sitting on a piano bench might need to drop to the floor and do a few push-ups to give his body some sensory-input. As you work with parents and professionals, you’ll come up with solutions that may require you to be a little more laid-back about certain things in class. I promise that in the long run, things will be better for it!
Students with special needs may require a little bit of extra time and self-education, but keep things in perspective: music is a lifelong gift. You are helping to bring that gift to a child who may not otherwise be able to access it successfully. You are changing a child’s life.