Enabling Students with Disabilities or Diverse Learning Needs to Flourish through Music

Daphne Proietto, OAM

Music is something that nurtures all children. For children with disabilities, who often experience barriers to participation in so many life domains, music can be life changing.

I have been teaching music to children with disabilities and diverse learning needs for over 22 years and, in doing so, have seen the incredible impact it has had on their lives. While we as teachers witness this impact on the children first-hand, we sometimes forget the effect on their families as well, particularly when those families are used to getting mostly bad news about their child’s capabilities.

This is what some of the parents say:

“Ollie was finally being recognised for something that he could do, rather than the focus on what he couldn’t do that you so often encounter. As parents, this gave us a much-needed sense of hope and encouragement.”

“Music has had a huge positive impact on Elizabeth’s development. It has given her confidence and belief in herself that she can overcome challenges as long as she keeps trying. As parents, this has been a real highlight for us.”

“Through Ms Daphne’s classes and concerts we have also had the opportunity to meet other wonderful families too and that has made us feel less alone in our journey.”

I was a Yamaha teacher too, in its early days, and am aware of the role parents can play in the lessons. I urge you, as teachers, to learn to listen to the parents of children with disabilities and follow their lead, as they know the individual idiosyncrasies of their children best.

The teaching methods that I use recognise, celebrate and build on the skills and abilities of each student. In doing so, this builds confidence and prowess for these students to use in all other areas of their lives.

Because I have taught so many students and have seen amazing transformations over time, I am always optimistic about what students can achieve. Never get downhearted about what may be seen as a lack of progress. First, students may not be able to demonstrate in front of a class what they know, due to anxiety about performing for a group; and, second, you may have to just recalibrate your measure of what progress looks like. For some students it may be pressing a piano key all on their own, or playing with more than one finger. For others it may be playing Chopin. Each child’s journey is individual and shouldn’t be measured against another’s.

Reducing Anxiety

One of the main features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is anxiety. This manifests itself in many different ways. All teachers should work on reducing anxiety.

All of my students start their musical journey learning pieces by ear or learning by rote. They listen to the pieces for at least three weeks (if not more) before starting to play them. That way, they are already familiar with the music, which makes learning it easier and less daunting. If you have a student on the autism spectrum in your class, you could record the pieces you will be doing in advance so that the student has already heard the music.

To help reduce anxiety, teachers should create a safe, comforting, happy working space, where students know that their work is not going to get criticised and that they will not be told off in front of their peers.

A few pointers are:

  • Welcome students warmly.
  • Plan the lesson, write it down in a way the students will understand and have it visible, so they know what to expect.
  • Ignore any behaviours such as tics.
  • Always use a calm voice and give immediate and positive feedback.

Prepare students for change well in advance – be that a change of venue or lesson time, an upcoming concert, physical changes to the teaching space or a change of teacher.

If a student is showing signs of anxiety, note it, but be patient. The student is already dealing with many challenges, so ideally it needs to be the teacher who adapts. You may have to provide a breakout area that is connected to the main music area for a student to “retreat” into if a lesson is too “overwhelming” for them.

As mentioned above, I have taught many students on the autism spectrum, but also those with cerebral palsy, ADHD and vision impairment. I have noticed that many have amazing aural skills and incredible aural memories. Initially teaching by ear utilises their innate strengths and gives them the confidence to tackle the reading of music. All of my students do learn how to decipher the language of music.

Strategies for Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

What is ASD?

ASD is a developmental disorder of variable severity that is characterised by a triad of impairments. These are: (1) impaired social skills; (2) delayed language and/or lack of communication skills; and (3) a narrow set of interests and repetitive behaviours. No two students ever share the same characteristics.

How can you help students in your class who are on the autism spectrum?

  1. Schedules: have a written timetable up in the classroom. If there is going to be a change, let the students know in advance and indicate it on the timetable/schedule.
    Schedules tell the students when they are going to do an activity and for how long. They help answer many of the questions these students have: What is happening? In what order? What is next? For how long?
  2. Be prepared for an apparent unwillingness to make eye contact, respond to questions or wait for you to finish speaking before interrupting or going ahead with a task.
  3. Make sure all your reactions are calm and predictable, and try not to take inappropriate behaviour or lack of empathy as a personal insult.
  4. Make sure all instructions are clear and concrete. Slow down your delivery and limit your instructions, breaking them down into small “bites”. Allow the students time to process information (verbal and visual) before you repeat instructions or questions, or take away visual information.
  5. Avoid open-ended questions, figurative speech and sarcasm.
  6. Students on the autism spectrum are visual learners. Using visual cues helps
  7. Shorten the processing time needed for instructions and information; for example, by using a picture chart to show which part of the lesson you are in.
  8. Check understanding before moving on to the next instruction.
  9. Prepare students for change well in advance.
  10. Do not stop repetitive movements, such as stimming. Students on the autism spectrum need these to cope with stressful situations.
  11. Set consistent rules for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Be firm, but kind and predictable in enforcing these rules, and remember that a raised voice or disappointed face may not be understood.
  12. Most students on the autism spectrum have a huge fear of failure, and this can be seen as “perfectionism”. Constantly wanting to start a piece again because one note was played by mistake is common. Demonstrate to the class that you are happy if a performance is not perfect.
    Never criticise a student in front of the class.
  13. Find out from the parents if their child reacts to certain stimuli and, if necessary, reduce background noise, and avoid bright lights and wearing perfume or certain colours.
  14. Use their favourite activities to motivate them. It is best to use lots of short rewards rather than wait until the end of the lesson. A quick activity and then a quick reward is the most effective.
  15. Always have a sense of humour
  16. Above all, be patient, calm and supportive, always offering encouragement and praise.

These teaching points are not just for students on the autism spectrum, but should be used as a guide for all your teaching.

Daphne Proietto OAM, Keys of Life

Daphne Proietto OAM started teaching students with diverse learning needs and disabilities at her home in 1999. In the beginning, it was a therapeutic approach rather than “teaching”. Daphne’s second student (who had no functional language but could use words when he sang) showed her that teaching was possible using the Suzuki method (he had previously tried the reading method). Word quickly spread around musical circles that Daphne was producing positive outcomes for these students using the innate abilities that most of them possess, such as perfect pitch and excellent memory.

Daphne’s work concentrates on developing the students’ fine and gross motor skills at an early stage and bringing them to an awareness of their aural skills. She also concentrates on building a rapport not only with the student, but with the family as well – emphasising that most of the work is done at home and that the parents need to be involved in their child’s musical development.
Daphne was featured on 60 Minutes in 2015, after which she was flooded with enquiries from parents who were keen for her to teach many more children. The Keys of Life Foundation was set up to help Daphne train the teachers of the future, enabling more children to gain access to my methods.

Keys of Life now offers online modules for teachers who wish to learn more about teaching students with disabilities and/or diverse learning needs. More information can be found at https://keysoflife.com.au/