If teaching special needs students is something you are considering, it is best to start with some very basic ground rules:
1. Abandon perfectionism. Embrace creativity.
Most independent teachers have figured this out already and do this with all of their students, but it is a mindset that is required when working with special needs students. This doesn't mean they can't be successful. It does means that the road to success is likely to be a little different, taking more time and more twists and turns. If your studio goals center on competitive settings with high-level performers, maybe special needs students will not fit your agenda. If you like to encourage students to get just a little better, and then a little better, go for it.
2. Student first, label second.
One of my wonderful and wise friends taught a student with Asperger's syndrome (usually defined as high-functioning autism) to become a fine pianist. The student developed excellent listening and improvisatory skills. I was not alone in begging her to give a presentation on the teaching techniques she used. She refused, explaining that this was the only Asperger's student she had ever worked with, and that she couldn't possibly generalize. Right. Like I said, wise. Every student is different, no matter the diagnostic label. The labels give you a general outline of what you may experience, and that is all.
3. You are a teacher, not a diagnostician or therapist, unless, of course, you are.
I know one person who gave up a career as an MD to become an independent piano teacher. This person is legally allowed to diagnose. If you are a person with some kind of legal authority to diagnose or provide therapy, you will know this. If you don't know this, you can't. However, you may recognize certain traits in students that could benefit from further exploration by people who can diagnose. Likewise, you are not a magician or healer. You are a facilitator.
4. Throw a wide net.
Be open to a large number of resources because you will need them. Your best help may come from someone you already know, or from recently printed resources, or from information-rich websites. Parent involvement is a must in order for you to get information about your students that will allow you to plan a course of action.
My resources include Dr. Kimberly Councill, music education specialist, and Kathy Morris, retired special education teacher and supervisor. The text they suggest is Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-Free Approach, by Alice M. Hammel and Ryan M. Hourigan, published by Oxford University Press.
I am in the learning stage here, so I don't consider myself to be my best resource. I'm keeping my eyes and ears open. I do have some common sense, however, and that is also very important. More on this as the blogs continue.
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