Teaching Children With Special Needs

The following is a transcript of an interview with piano and voice teacher Marlene Carr who has developed a specialty in teaching students with special needs.  Watch for highlights of this interview in future Academy publications!

Tell me about your experience in teaching music to people with special needs?

Currently I’m teaching a student with fetal alcohol syndrome, then there are kids with autism of varying degrees, one young boy who is now ten who is at the level of a two-year-old, then there is one child who is mentally and physically handicapped from birth but I don’t know the exact diagnosis because parents don’t always share that with me.  So I just take her as she comes to me and see what she needs.  Then I have one girl with Down syndrome, though a fairly light form of it.  She is already playing the piano quite nicely; she can play quite well.  She has a lot of support from her parents and the schools, which support her practicing.  So this is the group of kids I’m dealing with right now.

How did it come about that you began to develop this niche with the students?

I was always known as a teacher who is open-hearted and has flexibility.  I would never say No to a student with a circumstance that no one knew what to do with.  That’s how it started out.  Parents were looking for someone who could work with their special needs children.  One student was never able to take lessons because she didn’t like it: she would start but then not continue.  But when she came to me it was the first time she was actually looking forward to every lesson.  It proved to me that there is something in me that kids like this respond to.  They feel they are in a safe place, they trust me, they open up and they are willing to put their own effort in.  That’s how this all started: flexibility, an open heart, and not saying No to any situation.

You have identified that it was something innate inside you that helped you develop this ability and reputation.  You’ve gained knowledge through teaching these students; have you also gained expertise?

What helped me was always being creative.  Kids generally are always a little different every time they come to lessons.  They feel differently, they act differently… With kids with special needs, this is even more so the case.  You’re always creative with them; you don’t lock yourself into one system, saying “This is how I do it, so that’s how I’m going to do it.”  At first, I would talk to other educators and share my experience.  Then I read and educated myself about how to handle kids in these situations.  Then just by doing it: by practicing situation by situation I learned to find my way through.  I also have a medical background: I was a registered nurse when I was younger.  This also helps me understand the medical side of things; I’m not afraid of it.

How did you overcome any obstacles in learning to teach students with special needs?

One girl I taught voice to was horrified to sing in public.  So I found a partner for her so that she felt that she had some support.  She didn’t really need it [musically], but it was there for her.  I would incorporate a group around her, but she would be the star of the group.  Or I had a little girl who was not exactly special needs, but she was more needy than other children.  I let her sing her songs for a bunch of different people – strangers.  I would invite them into her lesson, one at a time, to listen to her song.  So she would learn to sing in front of one other person first.  From there, she was able to do it in front of a whole group of people.  It just broke the ice for her.  So I use the same kinds of things for students with other special needs.  I’ve built a sensitivity for things and learned to find my way through.  The key aspects are: patience, love for the kids and what you’re doing, and tolerance.  I need to be very open, and accepting, and tolerant.  I take every lesson as a new one.  Today is always new.  I don’t expect that the same good things that happened last lesson will happen again today.  Or vice versa: if something didn’t work out the time before, I know this time it could be totally different.  I give everything a chance; I don’t prepare to have another bad lesson because that closes the door.  It’s my attitude that makes a difference, and the kids feel that.  They feel they can be where they are at and it doesn’t matter – it’s okay.  They feel they’ve come to a safe place.  They don’t get judged or put down.  It is just what it is.

I’m getting a picture of a special needs student as having an exaggeration of the same issues that every other student has, and at the same time the techniques you use are an exaggeration of the same ones you use for all your students.

Yes, that’s a very good way to put it.  And also instilling trust in the relationship between a special needs student and myself is even more important than with a regular student.  That opens up the creativity and everything.

On the flip side, how have you found your students have overcome the challenges that they’ve realized they have?

They overcome challenges by gaining the confidence that they can do it.  They gain the confidence through the reinforcements they get.  I use very simple tools: for example, on the keyboard, if they forget which key is C or D or E, then I give them little stickers and we put them on the keys and we write the note name on the key or over the written notes.  Or I sing the note, play it and point at it at the same time.  Then repetition, repetition, repetition.  There’s always a way to overcome a challenge.  The ground just needs to be prepared.  For instance, I have one special needs girl who can’t memorize – she just can’t.  So I make big charts with the lyrics to her song in big letters, so whenever she performs, I hold the charts up.  It’s better than her having to stand in front of people with her papers in front of her.

How about home practice?

It’s very important that the parents or caregivers do their part at home.  Having said that, often, they are helpless.  So I have to rely on whatever happens in the lesson.  For instance, if they don’t play piano themselves, unless they are willing to practice as much as the student, then they can’t help them with it.  So I explain to the parents what I’m doing and how they can help at home, but if they don’t play piano then it’s very difficult.

Have you had any parents who have taken you up on the challenge to learn alongside the student?

As a matter of fact, one lady brings in her iPhone and records the lesson.  I show her on the piano and she video records exactly what she has to do at home.  So some parents are very proactive that way.

What are the positive results you have seen in your students?

I have seen very steady progress in basic piano skills.  They really learn how to progress and play piano just like other kids do, only it’s just a little slower and they need a few extra “accessories” to help them.  But they can do it.  A part of learning to play the piano is learning to concentrate and focus on something for a certain length of time.  I’ve seen a lot of progress in this area because often focus is something they start out being poor at.  And coordination is also something that gets a lot of attention as a piano skill, and on the vocal side they learn expressiveness – they can come out of themselves.  They feel like it is a tool for them for express themselves.  They also gain confidence to go in front of people and not be shy about that.

I think steady progress, increased concentration and the ability to express yourself are a huge gift to give a special needs child.

And the feeling of “I can do this.”  They are incredibly proud of what they can do, more so than kids who don’t have special needs.  Incredibly proud when they accomplish something, and it’s very heartwarming for me.

Where do you hope this experience and expertise will lead you and your students down the road?

I value the amount of time we spend together.  I find the trusting relationship really grows; the more trust, the more the child learns.  The better the teacher and child know each other, then that relationship grows and that’s the best foundation for learning.

What can a caregiver or parent of a special needs child expect should they enroll in music lessons as a new student?

The parent of a special needs child can expect that their child will have a regular lesson schedule, just like any kid.  They will receive very clear progress reports and lots of communication.

Do they sit in on the lesson?

Once in a while they do.  It’s usually better if I’m one-on-one with the student.  There was one situation where the parent sat in and the student said “You have to go.  I want to be just with Marlene, with my teacher.”  The parent wasn’t even tolerated.  If that happens, I usually get the student to at least agree to share a short time of the lesson with the parent, because I find it essential that parents are part of the progress.  They need to see their child learn, how they learn and see the development.  And also because there comes a time when special needs children need flexibility, there will be rescheduling of lessons which will always be granted.  And there will always be support for overcoming challenges, whether it has to do with practicing or other issues.  And positive reinforcement of all of that.  If things don’t work out, there are no repercussions, only things to learn from.