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Accomodating Student Needs and Learning Styles

All teachers understand that students come to us with different interests, learning styles, and learning needs. We work with all of our students to achieve the goals of learning how to play the piano and study music.

However, teachers who work with students who have learning challenges or developmental delays face different challenges and lesson planning looks very different for these students than for students who are typical learners. Typical piano methods may not work with all students and traditional piano pedagogy tools are not always appropriate for working with students with learning challenges. While my piano pedagogy training is highly useful and definitely needed to work with my students, the most useful sources for working with my students are books in special education, whose methods and strategies I then apply to piano pedagogy training.

Many of the students I work with have diagnosed labels of autism-spectrum disorder, dyslexia, Down syndrome, visual impairment, auditory processing, and visual processing. However, five students with the same disability label will not learn the same way. Because the parent is one of my greatest resources for learning about how the individual child learns, spending extra time talking with the parent prior to the first lesson is crucial to understanding the student's needs.

As I plan lessons, each lesson is individualized to each student. I start with my student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This document is devised by the team of specialists and teachers working with the student in the public school system and is a legal document. Students who attend private special education schools also have an IEP. An IEP lists goals for each class a student attends, such as therapy goals for speech, occupational or physical therapy, or behavior expectations. While the IEP may have nothing to do with music or piano, I can use the information to help me understand areas of strength for my student, as well as areas of challenge. It also gives me ideas for how to approach note reading, rhythm learning, hand positions, and triggers for possible behavioral challenges.

Another common theme that I see in school and with different therapies is the use of computer tablets. Using a tablet in my studio helps build trust and incorporates something my students are familiar with outside of piano. Many of my students use a special education program called Boardmaker. This is a picture-based visual support that is used to aid in communication, as well as social and emotional learning. For piano, I use it to create schedules for the piano lesson, practice routines for home, and to create picture lists of what to expect at a recital or what to bring to a lesson. The program is very expensive, but many of my student's families own the program and it is already loaded on the child's tablet. The families allow me to use it and create templates for each child on his/her tablet that apply to our piano lessons. If a family does not have the program, many times the school special-education teachers or occupational therapists are willing to make templates for me that apply to piano.

At this point, we use calendar apps to create practice reminders. At each lesson, we pick the individual days when they are going to practice. This is usually something that is easy to implement as many schools are using assignment notebooks or calendar apps to teach independence and personal responsibility in the classroom. Some apps that I like are My Student Planner, Assignment Notebook, and Homework Pal. All of these apps are free. From my perspective, these are easy tools to incorporate in the studio, as my students are already familiar with these apps at school. It also creates consistency between the different tools that are being used for the student.

When I assign a new piece, I use the tablet as a tool for introducing the new piece. I often scan the piece and add it to the tablet. We use color coding on the music, if necessary, for different types of modifications. Also, I can scan the piece one line at a time if I have a student who gets overwhelmed with a longer piece. Tablets also allow us to enlarge the score for a student with a vision impairment. Please note, I do require all students to purchase the original score. We then make the individualized modifications for each student on his or her tablet.

Many of my students are much more technologically savvy than I am. After using all of my tools to individualize the learning process, many of my students will still go online to find a video model of the piece they are learning. As we know, some of the videos posted on YouTube are not the best examples or models of good technique or performance, so I have found it helpful to create a YouTube library of appropriate videos.

I also use the iPad, tablet, or smart phone to video lessons. This creates a positive model for the student to refer to during the week and provides the parents a video model to consult when they are practicing with the student. Parents find it helpful to see if their child is practicing correctly, and the video addresses questions that may arise during practice.

I allow students to text me during the week if they are frustrated or do not remember exact practice instructions. Even with very clear written assignment instructions in an app or assignment notebook, students can get confused during the week. We all experience this. However, I would rather the student text me for help than practice incorrectly for the week. Sometimes, students will send me a short video of what they are doing and ask for corrections. 

For this idea to work, I do set up boundaries and tell students I will not reply during teaching hours but I promise to reply by the end of the day. Many of us use music apps to provide additional learning opportunities for our students in theory, note reading, and rhythm. I have found that many apps move too quickly for many of my students, which can lead to frustration.

One app that I do use is Flashnote Derby. I like that I am able to program the app with the exact notes that my students are learning and I can control the settings. 

These simple strategies have proven very effective with my students who have learning challenges. Throughout the years, my students who are typical learners have requested the same types of accommodations. I have implemented these strategies studio-wide so that my students with learning challenges do not feel that differences are being made between them and my other students. I find this to be the most important pedagogical strategy of all. I can provide all of these accommodations while still having high piano pedagogical standards of learning.

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