Meeting Special Needs in the Music Classroom

A Problem Solving Approach

by Dr. Susan Snyder
October, 1999

I am a music teacher, not a certified special education teacher. Yet, I have frequently been asked to address the issue of special learners, and I'm certainly interested in how we can help ourselves understand the materials, processes, and classroom strategies that will create powerful learning situations for all children. The ideas shared here were first gathered for a workshop entitled "Meeting Special Needs in the Music Classroom."

The Music Classroom

Before considering special learners, consider your goals in the music classroom.

For me, before I can consider special learners, I need to decide what the goals are going to be for all students, and be certain that they are important for students to learn. I look for those understandings and skills that will grow over a lifetime, and try to organize my curriculum to teach them so they build on one another over time. I want my students to be involved in creating, performing, and responding. I want them to learn through quality literature that stands the test of time, and represents as much diversity as possible. I want to be sure I am teaching self-discipline and self-control, self-esteem, ability to work alone and together, respect, questioning, critical thinking, and honest self and peer evaluation. I want students to have high standards, and value the process of learning and growing as much as the end result.

Now I can consider how I will need to modify those goals for each individual student, setting the bar either higher or lower, but always moving from step to step toward growing understanding and skill.

Learning — How does it happen?

Next, I want to think about how the learning will happen in my classroom. Many times, "special learner" simply means that this child does not conform to learning through the traditional means available in a classroom. The traditional classroom is very teacher directed, with little student talk or action. I need to inspect my classroom in light of current theories and thoughts about teaching and learning.

So before considering what to do with problem children, it is important to look at the learning environment we provide. Who is making the music, the children or us? Who is doing the creating, the children or us? Who is doing the performing, the children or us? Who is doing the creative problem solving to make things better in the classroom? Are we empowering the children to become independent learners? Are we teaching them how to work together by providing tasks that both challenge and afford the opportunity for success? Is there space for them to move? Are there instruments for them to play? Have we done any problem solving ourselves to get the space and materials needed to provide the teaching and learning we have decided upon?

If we are providing a teaching and learning environment that is developmentally appropriate, hands-on, safe and challenging, then we can begin to consider those children who still are not thriving in this environment. There will be very few.

Special Learners and Special Needs: A Problem Solving Approach

Most music teachers know the "problem" students in each class. However, there are so many children each day, and in each school, that it is hard to focus on just what the individual problem might be. If you meet together, you can probably list the types of differences you see in children. If you are isolated, try this by yourself, or find a colleague in your school to begin dialogue.

List the individual problems on a chart, one in each box, for example: lack of self control, can't share, loses temper quickly, doesn't understand (process) directions aurally, can't read from left to right, frightened to participate, and so on.

In a next column, put possible reasons for this specific behavior. Sometimes you can figure this out by watching a videotape of the class and seeing what triggers the behavior. Sometimes you can speak to the child, teacher, social worker, parent, or other involved adult. Sometimes you just have to guess.

Once you have figure out a possible reason, then you can determine some possible solutions. If a child doesn't process directions aurally, you might try:

Will these work? I don't know. You'll have to try, because every child and problem is unique. However, some patterns will begin to emerge. At least you are taking a proactive, problem solving approach that may make things better. If you let the child in on what you are doing, s/he probably will be willing to help. Just knowing you notice may change some behaviors.

Make a problem-solving chart, with three columns:

  1. Type of Difference
  2. Possible Reasons
  3. Possible Solutions

I am not trying to make light of the real problems that face both teachers and children. There are children who are autistic, emotionally unstable, have fetal alcohol syndrome or other learning impediments, are physically challenged, are fighting their own demons of one sort or another. There are more and more "abnormal" children in school every day, regardless of the setting.

I am suggesting that our definition of normal must change, and the ways in which we work must also change. Through some creative problem solving, perhaps those of us who were never trained to teach this type of child will have a chance of providing this child and the others in the room with a satisfying music education. At least we can try.

Margaret Campbelle-Holman asked if I might respond to a request from Nashville teachers about special learners, and I've had that request sitting amongst my messages for several weeks. Here is my response. If you want to respond back I am at sue@aeideas.com. I am often quite busy, so please be patient if it takes me a while to get back to you.