Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Five Thought Needs: #1 - Control.

Studying recent resources on Asperger's Syndrome occupied my cold winter evenings. There are many excellent books and articles that shed light on the characteristics of people who are "on the spectrum," the current umbrella reference for the diversity of autism. My favorite is a website created by two young men with Asperger's, and now run by one of these founders, Danny Raede. If you are working with students with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), I highly recommend visiting

One of their informational videos includes a list of five thought needs. These needs are not just for people with ASD but for all of us. When these needs are met appropriately, our ability to function in the world is heightened. And because we teach people with these needs, and we have them ourselves, we can apply this list to our own personal teaching styles.

Here they are: control, attention, safety, connection, and variety.

The first need on the list is control. Big surprise, right? To be honest, there may be many independent teachers who choose this profession because of the amount of control it provides. We can control our working hours, our curriculum, our environment, our business practices, and even our work clothes. But how about our personal interactions? Where does control fit in there?

 When considering control, remember the dials on old radios. We used them to eliminate static and to pull in those distant stations we could get only at certain times of day and in certain spots in the house. They weren't on/off switches, and the same can be said of interpersonal control. It will change from interaction to interaction, depending on personalities, maturity levels, expectations, and events of the day.
A young child with too much control may become an anxious child.  All of us who are parents recognize the times when our children push the limits of control with us. They want to hit the proverbial wall because the wall is an element of safety. Okay, someone else will take care of that for me - what a relief! The same can be said for the teaching environment, especially since children don't know what they don't know, both in terms of information and behavior.

However, a young child deprived of appropriate control is less likely to learn valuable skills like self-soothing and decision-making. The current term for parents who oversee everything for their children is helicopter parents. Sometimes these parents actually speak for their children as though they were their children. Finding the sweet spot is a challenge for parents and teachers, particularly for parents who have forgotten the lessons they learned through trial and error.

A recent study by piano teacher Karen King ( revealed that students with too much parental oversight by musical parents were more likely to quit piano lessons than those with less interference. Let's face it - it is hard for us to sit idly by while hearing wrong notes and rhythms! But for some children, constant critical oversight creates a fear of making mistakes that adds more pressure than support.

As a child matures both physically and musically, more control over things like repertoire and sequence of events during the lesson can fall to the student. Giving a student the choice between several appropriate pieces helps the student to feel more engaged in the process, and asking them for preferences in pop music is another good way to encourage ownership. Encouraging them to construct practice goals and systems for self-evaluation can bring them more deeply into the process.

A set of parents taught me a great way to help children accept more control as they mature. On each birthday, they gave their daughter two envelopes with lists inside. One was marked "New Privileges," and the other was marked "New Responsibilities." This practice creates a balance of control between parents and children that allows for changes within the family unit. Perhaps we could adopt this concept, even in a less formal way, by informing our students that growth musically provides new opportunities and new expectations.

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