Adaptive Piano Lessons Domain: Behavioral

“Nearly all academic and social activities require interpersonal interactions; therefore, a behavioral disorder can affect every area of a student’s development: intellectual, educational, and social.”* Please read that again, and let it sink in a little deeper. What’s being said is that a behavioral disorder literally affects every aspect of a child’s life. I don’t know about you, but this is a sobering thought!

I am often so concerned with how a student’s behavior is interrupting the piano lesson or keeping us from learning new music that I don’t stop to realize that these same behaviors must be having an enormous impact on every area of this child’s life, not just the small time I am with them. The thought is sobering, but there is great hope!

When I say “behavior disorder”, usually teachers have at least one student who pops into their mind unannounced. It is very rare for us at any given time not to have someone who comes into the studio and exhibits inappropriately timed and frustrating behavior. Maybe you have a student who won’t sit still longer than one minute at a time. Maybe your student will not stop talking or proceeds to play the keys every time you try and get a word in. Maybe your student has been at school all day and can’t handle the structure of yet another teaching moment.

For today’s domain, I don’t think I need to tell you exactly what to expect with a behavior disorder, but I do want to make a few notes before heading into ways we can adapt our teaching 🙂

~ Some students are wiggly and need help to stay on task. This does not necessarily denote a behavior disorder, but all of the tips below will help!  

~ What actually constitutes a behavior disorder is up for debate. The three common criteria used in evaluation are chronicity, severity, and pervasiveness of the behavior.” **

~ It is essential that we know the criteria, but once again, it is not our place to diagnose! (Have you heard me say that before? 😉 )

~ All of the tips and resources listed below are best carried out with consistency and kindness. Reaching through the undesired behavior of a child to both teach music and make them feel valued begins with YOUR attitude towards the situation!

~ There is usually an outside reason for the behavior your student may be exhibiting. Communication is key here! Working with parents, school teachers, and their aides if given the chance can be helpful in finding the underlying reason for the undesired behaviors. Solutions will become more clear, and the student’s parents will realize how much how care as well 🙂

So what are some tangible ways we can work with our students who seem to have deficiencies in the behavioral domain?

An Engaging Lesson Plan

Having a lesson plan that keeps the student engaged is the key! As the teacher, it is important that you learn the signs of when your student is losing focus. Be proactive and move on to a new activity that will regain their focus and make the most of the time you have with them! My personal rule for this – I always plan an abundance of different activities for any given lesson. I don’t ever intend to use all of them, but we never run out of productive ways to use the lesson time, and if they lose focus there is always something to switch to!

Off-Bench Activities

I don’t expect my younger students to stay on the bench the entire lesson. Occasionally we do, but more often than not you’ll find us bouncing back and forth between playing at the piano, practicing skills away from the piano, and moving to demonstrate new concepts. In my opinion, piano is much more fun this way for everyone! This also gets your students moving from one activity to the next to avoid loss of focus 🙂

Visual Schedule

Visual schedules and charts can work wonders for your students who need visual cues to reinforce or modify behaviors. Stickers, stop light systems, and all things visual give the student a sense of control over their learning, while giving the teacher the ability to point to the goal if things start to get off track.


Challenging a student to stay on track through the entire lesson is ultimately the goal (although you may have to start smaller!). Practice challenges can focus the student on what needs to be done at home and away from the lesson when it comes to learning music. Every once in a while you could have a reversed lesson … the student is now the teacher! Feel free to make some {purposeful} mistakes. The challenge is to see how many of them your student can catch!


Rewards can be tangible such as candy, stickers, or a trip to the treasure box. I often say that I’ll use small rewards to inspire what I hope will eventually become an intrinsic desire to learn music or do what is right. Our students with behavioral deficiencies may need a little bit more help in this area. There are lots of different opinions on this topic, but I am one of those teachers who adores stickers! Candy comes out periodically, but must be eaten at home 🙂 I do use less physical rewards than when I first began teaching … once again goes back to the desire to instill in my students learning music for music’s sake!

Rewards can also be less tangible … if a child loves improvisation or duets, you could use this as the reward for staying focused while working through their lesson book or a challenge song 🙂 Feel free to get creative, and tailor it to each individual student!

Goal Setting

My type-A personality loves this one! Goal setting is important for all of us … but especially those who have trouble staying on task. Short term goals can keep the student focused and allow the teacher to give gentle reminders. Long term goals can be tracked and discussed week after week. The important thing to remember – make sure that you communicate and involve the student in goal-setting! I have goals for each student that they do not know about (I’m working these out behind the scenes), but I also involve them in setting goals that they have ownership over as well! Keeping parents in the goal-setting loop is also critical to success.

Problem Solving

Teaching problem solving to prevent frustration is so incredibly important. I can’t expect a student to move forward and enjoy what they are doing unless I have given them the tools to play without me. My students and I often talk about questions they can ask themselves when they are stuck, or ways they can work around it until we can talk at the next lesson. This not only prevents frustration, but allows for the understanding that challenges will come and they will need to work hard… and this is okay!

Coping Strategies

Piano yoga is one of my favorites here 🙂 I often use it as a way for the students to get their wiggles out before we officially begin their lesson. You can use it as a brain break if they are losing focus … lots of giggles will come if they are trying to stretch themselves into a quarter note or an eighth rest! This is great for melting away frustration!

Weighted vests, ball chairs, and angle chairs are also tools that can help a student feel safe and calm during a lesson (make sure to always work with parents when using such tools!).

Multi-Sensory Items

When teaching new concepts, it is important to keep the student’s hands busy so their minds can focus. This can be having a fidget spinner sitting on the bench (make sure it’s only available when you want it to be). This could also include learning new concepts with play-dough (check out some ideas here). I will often create a large staff on the floor of my studio with duct tape. Practicing notes is much more fun when you have to jump between them or throw bean bags!

Using any/all of these tips with all of your students will bring rewarding results! BUT I want to highlight that so far we have been focused on you, as the teacher, adapting to your student’s needs. However, adaptive piano lessons are not just for the benefit of our students! In order to adapt effectively, we must practice patience, plan more effectively, organize materials, and stay on task in the lesson. I was struck in college by this question… and it keeps coming back to me whenever I begin to choose my comfort zone over what my studio really needs: “If students with behavioral problems can affect us in these ways, how can teaching them be negative?”***

I hope that today, you’ll see your students who present behavioral challenges in a new and hopeful light. They can bring life to our teaching in ways that our exceptionally well-behaved and predictable students never will 🙂

Remember the very beginning of this article – how behavioral deficiencies affect every area of a student’s life? We have the opportunity to create a space that may be one of the few places in life a student feels accepted and capable of succeeding. Just as our students often change our lives, we can be an agent of hopeful change in theirs!

*Mary S. Adamek and Alice-Ann Darrow, Music in Special Education (Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association, 2010). 142.

** Mary S. Adamek and Alice-Ann Darrow, Music in Special Education (Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association, 2010). 138.

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


One thought on “Adaptive Piano Lessons Domain: Behavioral

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

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