Adaptive Piano Lessons Domain: Cognitive

The cognitive domain can range from exceptional cognitive ability to severe cognitive and learning disabilities. For our purposes today, we will be focusing on the side of the spectrum where we find disabilities. Students with learning disabilities do not necessarily have a cognitive disability. But we will be looking at strategies for teaching a student displaying either or both. One of the most important aspects of this domain to remember is that “children with intellectual disabilities develop skills in the same way that children without disabilities develop skills, only they develop these skills at a slower rate.”*

Please read that sentence again. Why is this so exciting? Because it means that by adapting our teaching styles for students with disabilities, we can cater to their adapted learning styles! This gives a fresh perspective when it comes to teaching within the cognitive domain. No child is a lost cause, and very often we are the ones who can make simple adjustments to fulfill individual needs.

So what are some ways that we can determine a need to adapt our teaching in light of a cognitive deficiency? You may see marks such as …

~ Limitations in motivation, attention, and memory

~ Learning hindered by too much stimuli

~ Ability to understand directions only when given in short steps

~ Basic academic skills may fall below those of same-aged peers

~ A need for structure

~ A lack of social skills

~ A lack of self esteem

~ Often you will notice deficiencies here come hand in hand with deficiencies in other domains

I will say this in each domain … but it is CRITICAL that we remember that it is important to recognize and understand criteria for deficiencies in each domain. But our job is NOT to diagnose a student, but to teach our students as effectively as possible.

I say this now because I know that as teachers we have an innate desire to teach well and fix problems that arise. We are often motivated to get to the root of a problem – because with that understanding we will have the most success. Of course, there will be times to discuss a warning sign that you see with a student’s parent. There will also be times when the parents are fully aware of unique learning needs that are coming to light at school, but they choose not to share any of that journey with you. As frustrating as this can be, our job is still not to diagnose or push into places where we are unwanted. Our job is to be consistent and caring teachers within the space we have been given.

So what are some strategies we can use when we do see one or multiple of these markers displayed with one of our students?

This is not an exhaustive strategy list, but will hopefully get you started on this adaptive lesson journey 🙂

Various Learning Styles

There are three major learning styles: visual, auditory, and tactile learning. Some students will best benefit from seeing the teacher play a passage or explain a theory concept on paper (visual). Some students will best benefit from hearing the teacher play the music or explain a new concept with words (auditory). Other students will need to rest their hand on the teacher’s moving hand or march to a beat to fully understand the concept (tactile).

No need to feel the daunting pressure of discovering each student’s preferred learning style! As you work with them, you will begin to notice what is preferred. But using a combination of the strategies will give all of your students the chance to have fun learning in a holistic manner!  

Multi-sensory learning

Here is where you find your students who love to dig their hands into the play dough (more coming on this in an upcoming post!). Learning rhythm is more fun with Legos, and any type of visuals they can touch do the trick. Letting your student choose stickers to represent their finished pieces is yet another way to be hands-on.

Slower paced methods

Remember that I said earlier on that our students with cognitive deficiencies learn in the same order our other students learn, just at a slower rate. There are three ways to incorporate this into your teaching to make music more manageable!

  1. Pick a slower method book. Methods designed for younger students often present concepts at a slower pace. Music for Little Mozarts (Alfred), My First Piano Adventures (Faber) or Wunderkeys – Preschool ( are all methods that work to add concepts in a slower and methodical way. Kevin Olson’s The Perfect Start also introduces new notes at a slower rate, and equates each one with a fun animal.
  2. Work through your usual methods at a slower pace. Celebrate small victories, and create your own mental timeline that is right for the student. Push back against any desire you have to compare their progress with other students you teach!
  3. Lots of supplements. Did your student work through a primer book and still needs to solidify the concepts learned? Try an equivalent book in a different method to mix things up while reviewing the same concepts. Did you teach your student C position, but they need more than the couple of units in the method to master it? Find a project or fun book that will work only on the C position. This can be a very fun way to continue concepts without boring your student or yourself!


Knowing that some students need more time on a given concept brings us headlong into repetition. Repetition is critical with all of our students! But for those who have a cognitive disability, you may find that an abundance of repetition is needed. Never fear, though! There are lots of fun ways to incorporate repetition without it being boring!

~ Flashcards are much more exciting when you have to slap them with a fly swatter… how fast can you catch each one the teacher yells out?

~ Game-based learning!!! Whenever you play games, you are repeating a given concept in an active, hands-on way. Read more about this here.

Some of the games I use to teach intervals.

~ White boards. Somehow everything is more exciting when you get to draw on a white board.

~ Coloring and worksheets

~ Teaching someone else. Whether the student teaches you, mom or dad, or a sibling. I believe you truly know a concept when you can teach it to other people!


Schedules and visual charts

When learning is difficult, surprises are not warmly welcomed. Having a schedule shows the student what you’ve accomplished and what is left to do that day. Having a visual chart allows for the student to pick the order they complete each task, without giving them the freedom to pick the tasks 😉

Rote learning

Every student wants to play something that sounds “cool.” But if the student is learning at a slower pace, it may take longer to achieve their ideal sound. Rote pieces allow the students to play intricate sounding pieces, practice specific techniques, and explore new sounds without the additional task of reading notes.

This can also be useful in teaching a new concept. If you teach it by rote first, the student already knows what it feels/sounds like. Then the next step is to recognize what that feeling/sound looks like in the music. Rote learning has a huge emphasis in the pattern basis of music!

One Step at a Time

This step-by-step approach also gives the student more of a handle on what they are learning. One of our indicating markers for a cognitive disability is the inability to process more than one instruction given at a time. If I tell the student to pull out their book, turn to the song they practiced, and remind me what key it is in, the student may pull out the book and forget what is next. A step-by-step approach leads to less frustration!

Lead sheet and EZ play

Lead sheets and EZ play music limit the amount of information that needs to be processed at one time. Some students thrive with this, and once again it allows them to play exciting sounding music much faster. Although not ideal to stay here, it can be a great stepping stone for moving to more advanced written music.

Need more info on Lead Sheets? Check out the post here!

Each and every day new problems arise with our students that we seek to squelch, correct, and redirect. Not every student has a cognitive/learning disability. But each and every student will need to learn at their own rate and be given instruction that is specific to them in order to thrive. I hope these ideas give you a launching pad to begin to meet each student right where they are at!  

*Mary S. Adamek and Alice-Ann Darrow, Music in Special Education (Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association, 2010), 163.


3 thoughts on “Adaptive Piano Lessons Domain: Cognitive

  1. Pingback: 100 Blog Posts and Counting – Piano Possibilities

  2. Pingback: Adaptive Piano Lessons Domain: Physical – Piano Possibilities

  3. Pingback: Resource Roundup: Rote Learning – Piano Possibilities

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