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Teaching Neurodiverse students

All students come with their own set of skills and challenges. Teaching neurodiverse students takes creative planning to meet their needs.

When I talk about neurodiverse I am referring to students with autism, ADHD, OCD, or any kinds of special needs challenges.

Like all teachers, I meet each student where they are currently. I assess their skills, their areas of challenge and of course their personality.

Neurodiverse students often come with another layer of unseen challenges. For example, many students on the spectrum get easily overwhelmed or have trouble seeing the big picture. I have found the most helpful way to alleviate them being overwhelmed is the amount of repertoire assigned each week. I ask my students if they would like to do another song. If yes, I happily assign another. If no, I respect their limits and keep the assignment smaller. Also, breaking songs down into smaller parts helps. Maybe the whole song seems like too much. I might just assign the right hand for one week or hands separately.

Students that have trouble focusing or sitting still for 30 minutes present a different challenge. How do you keep them engaged for 30 minutes?

I have found breaking the lesson into smaller parts keeps then more focused. I also use instruments and games.

After students have learned their new songs, I often have them play the rhythm on a hand drum. They will play rhythm once by themselves and then I will play the song along with them the 2nd time.

Another favorite is my teacher's pointer. Students love to use it to find various musical things in their songs. For instance point to all the half notes or find the dynamics in this song. Sometimes I incorporate dancing as well. My younger students love when I play an upbeat song and they get to dance with it.

Games are a fun way to continue the learning and reinforce concepts we are learning in our lesson. Many students have their favorite game or games and can't wait to play them. Drawing on a white board or manipulating magnets on the staff are other fun ways to teach note drawing and note reading.

Another way to keep students engaged or interested in piano is to use music that they are highly interested in. I ask students if there if a song they really want to play or a certain type of music they like. Many students are highly motivated by video game songs.

I currently have a student who only works on video game songs. The standard curriculum did not much interest him. However, he practices consistently and plays very challenging music for his level. We still learn note reading, dynamics, musical symbols, rhythm etc. I also have a subscription to Musescore where I can print out hundreds of songs for a reasonable yearly fee.

As I look over all these tips, they are really tips that help and work for all students. But I have found that they work especially well in neurodiverse students.

Here's to happy teaching all students in the best way possible!

Sarah Beckelheimer is co-owner and piano instructor at Dynamic Music Studios in Coralville, Iowa. We serve students in Coralville, Iowa City, North Liberty, Tiffin, Cedar Rapids, and many other surrounding towns.

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