Working with disabled children can be challenging, especially for a less-seasoned instructor with limited experience working with kids with disabilities. That being said, the pros heavily outweigh the cons. There are lessons in patience, humility, and communication to be learned for both teacher and student, and as your students grow, so will you.
Though the amount of responsibility that comes attached to this task may seem daunting, don’t worry! You’ve got this in the bag. Lucky for you, the thing you are teaching is music, and if there’s one thing kids of all shapes and sizes love to participate in- it’s music. By default, that gives you a leg up from the get go. With the right mindset and the right tools, you will enrich the lives of your students through music and enable them to reap the benefits that come with a structured music curriculum; if you’re lucky, you’ll learn more about yourself in the process.
What benefits do music lessons provide for kids with disabilities?
Well, for starters, music helps tremendously with general cognitive development. In just one music lesson, the child is being exposed to various sensory experiences, thus stimulating and engaging different areas of the mind.
One of the cool things about music is that it works as a solo endeavor OR as a collaborative effort. In a music lesson, your student will be exposed to both. Singing or playing solo teaches special needs children how to be independent, encourages creativity, and builds confidence. Singing or playing with a group of other kids (or, if it’s a private lesson, with you, the instructor) teaches special needs students important skills about interaction, listening, and taking turns.
Music lessons provide special needs children with positive motivation to achieve goals. Music is a fun and familiar form of expression, and the student will enjoy themselves while learning a valuable lesson in both practice and hard work.
It has been proven that music lessons lead to general behavioral improvement in students with special needs. Structured, repetitive, activities are tremendously effective in teaching them to pick up on social and behavioral queues.
What are good things to include in the curriculum?
Lessons in Rhythm
- Learning about rhythm helps special needs students develop their motor skills!
- Use clapping, stomping, percussive instruments (like shakers and drums), and familiar words to teach students how to emphasize key syllables. An understanding of cadence and body rhythm will eventually follow suit.
- Example: Have the student say their name while clapping/stomping each syllable. If their name is Jason, they would clap each syllable while chanting “Ja-son, Ja-son, Ja-son”. Special needs kids like to use their names- it’s who they are!
- Breaking down the pronunciation of a song and talking about what the song is about can have a positive effect on a special-needs student’s quality of speech as well as their auditory comprehension.
- Use visual supports to help with comprehension, and consistent repetition to encourage memorization.
- Example: Say the song you’re working on is ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. Hold up photos that reflect key words for each part in the song (i.e. photos of a star, a diamond, the sky) to help the student remember the lyrics.
- Ask questions that will help the student comprehend the meaning of the lyrics; like for the line “like a diamond in the sky”, you could ask “what do diamonds do?”. Diamonds shine. Like stars. So this is why a star is like a diamond in the sky.
Lessons in Pitch
- Teach your student Solfege! Learning the hand-signs are a great exercise in memorization and recall and are great for developing acute motor skills. The hand signs are also a great visual tool for understanding relative pitch and you will be able to use them throughout the entirety of your student’s curriculum.
- One trick for helping special needs students match pitch is by using familiar song verses and having the student repeat them back instead of trying to get them to match a pitch from a piano or a pitch pipe.
- Take the student’s personal style and favorite music genre into consideration when coming up with a lesson plan. Try to incorporate familiar music into the curriculum as much as possible; it is another great tool for working on pitch and the student will have more fun with it!
Be flexible and adaptable
- No lesson plan is going to be one-size-fits all! If your lesson plan or teaching method isn’t working out with a particular student, don’t be afraid to make adjustments.
Keep the parents involved
- Nobody knows your student like their parents, so keep them in the loop. Encourage your student to show their mom or dad what they learned so they can help them practice and review material between lessons. If your student is having a particularly difficult time with a certain activity or is having behavioral problems, ask the parents for feedback, suggestions, and advice.
Chloe Heimer is a lesson coordinator and blogger at TaylorRobinsonMusic.com. She lives in Louisa, Virginia with her daughter Charlie.