Including, Engaging, and Educating the Exceptional Child in Music Education

Katie Just, MT-BC Emporia, KS
Katie Just, MT-BC Emporia, KS

In 1990, Congress updated The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which emphasizes provision of educational opportunities for all students in the least restrictive environment. A least restrictive environment calls for the inclusion of differently-abled students in mainstream classrooms in which they may interact with typically-developing peers while also learning basic educational concepts. Due to the accessibility of and the interest in music often expressed by differently-abled students, individuals with exceptional needs are often placed in and expected to succeed during mainstream music education courses.

For many music educators, the possibility of including differently-abled students in the classroom is daunting. Collegiate courses on inclusion in the classroom often do not touch on specific disabilities or behaviors that may be exhibited by students. Educators are expected to connect with and create a special experience for a child with little to no instruction on how to accomplish such a goal.

In order to assess best methods for including, engaging, and educating students with special needs, the educator must first recognize how disabilities may be manifested in the behaviors and abilities of the student. All disabilities can be defined as deficits in communication, reception, and/or interaction. Some of the ways in which these deficits may be manifested are as follows:

Students with communication deficits may be…

  • Non-verbal
  • Unable to express wants or needs
  • Speech impaired
  • Inconsistent in abilities to communicate
  • Echolalic
  • Self-stimulating through humming, repeated words, shouts, hand flaps, etc.
  • Slow in response time or reaction rate
  • Clumsy in gait, mobility, or fine/gross motor skills
  • Exhibiting self-injurious behaviors in attempts to express wants or needs
  • Flat or exaggerated in facial affect

Students with reception deficits may be…

  • Hearing impaired
  • Visually impaired
  • Unable to discern the meaning of words
  • Unable to interpret social cues or non-verbal gestures
  • Stressed at changes in routine or unexpected sounds in the environment
  • Overstimulated from too much sensory input
  • Memory impaired
  • Confused at abstract concepts or multi-step tasks
  • Lacking in spatial awareness or coordination

Students with interaction deficits may be…

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Struggling to initiate or participate in conversation
  • Inattentive to events in the environment
  • Hyperactive or impulsive
  • Inconsistent in behavioral responses
  • Exhibiting abnormal mood swings
  • Highly anxious in social situations or cases of high expectation
  • Withdrawn
  • Relying on learned helplessness
  • Struggling with transitions
  • Attention deficit
  • Fixating on objects, people, conversation topics, etc.
  • Lacking awareness of personal space

Concerns about working with differently-abled students often arise when behaviors or symptoms listed above are observed without any guidance or direction on how to address such occurrences within the music classroom. Although each student may exhibit unique examples, the following lists ways in which a music educator may assist students who are exhibiting communication, reception, or interaction deficits:

Adaptations for Communication Deficits

  • Use simple handheld instruments with quiet, neutral notes (such as eggshaker, maraca, sandblocks, etc.) with the student to play along with start/stop cues
  • Implement percussion instruments to have the student keep a steady beat or play along quietly on a practice pad/felt board to accompany choral or band pieces
  • Work on the words of choral pieces slowly and with a metronome to keep a steady beat–the steady beat helps the brain to “latch on” and better pronounce/comprehend the words and can also assist the entire ensemble in correct pronunciation of the piece
  • Don’t speak “down” to the student–but if needed, offer primarily yes or no questions, give time for responses, and simplify instructions into one sentence at a time
  • If student uses an alternative method of communication–work with the special education teacher to implement visuals related to music class, pictures of the instruments used in class, or picture lists of rules/expectations
  • Support self-stimulation of humming by turning it into a vocalise; support self-stimulation of hand flapping or fidgets by matching the tempo of the movements
  • Use adaptive instrument equipment to assist student in holding onto or manipulating instruments/sheet music. Google ideas for specific adaptations
  • Maintain eye contact while communicating with the student–if verbalization is difficult or slurred, basic meaning can often be determined by eye gaze of expression
  • Work on cuing methods to assist the student with slow-response time in entering the choral or band piece at the correct time–even a basic countdown of “3-2-1-GO” can assist in preparation
  • Be mindful of the part you give for the student to complete–consider the function of the instrument and how your student would physically hold or manipulate the instrument; consider the communication abilities of the student and whether or not singing an entire piece is feasible or if it would be more beneficial to focus on only singing a specific phrase or word within the song

Adaptations for Reception Deficits

  • Have a paraeducator or peer volunteer assist in communicating instructions close-range to the student with hearing impairment
  • Have a paraeducator or peer volunteer assist in tapping the student’s arm with the beat to help them internalize the music
  • Implement tactile friendly materials or learning music by rote for students with visual impairments
  • Provide adequate time for student to hear, process, and respond to questions or instructions
  • Simplify questions or instructions to either yes or no questions or single-step instructions (“push key” with modeling is easier to understand than “alright Johnny, press your finger down on the E, which is the third white key from middle C”)
  • Be very literal in what you say–sarcasm or figures of speech are often taken seriously and interpreted with confusion
  • Make classroom expectations known so that the student is aware of the routine of the room; if a new or loud sound is going to be introduced, give a “heads up” warning
  • Explain what you are doing or what you want in step-by-step detail if needed, but don’t just assume that an exceptional child needs everything “watered down”
  • Dim the lights to decrease overstimulation; allow the student the opportunity for sensory breaks (small breaks from the activity to re-organize and step away from the stimulation of the environment)
  • Work with the student’s special education teacher to identify how best the student learns–repetition and routine are usually key to remembering musical patterns and expectations
  • Combat coordination issues by using materials that only require one-sided movement; combat spatial awareness deficits by letting the student explore their area

Adaptations for Interaction Deficits

  • Don’t demand constant eye contact, but rather encourage heads up or eye contact at key times, such as at the beginning or ending of a piece
  • Model an inclusive mindset by initiating conversation with the student–even if they are non-verbal. When students see their teacher interacting with an exceptional peer, they are more likely to have an attitude of inclusivity and kindness towards that peer
  • Offer the opportunity for the student to participate in conversation by asking very straightforward or yes/no questions
  • Bring attention to the student if they successfully perform a part or musical expectation they had been given–the same goes for exceptional students
  • Applaud good behavior or displays of impulse control
  • Assist students to be successful in their impulse control by waiting until the last minute to hand them an instrument or have a paraeducator or peer volunteer to help with cuing them on when to play/sing by modeling or by physical touch
  • Anticipate problems that may arise from behavioral inconsistencies by being aware of the student’s immediate environment and removing items that may be used for injurious behaviors
  • Allow the student opportunities for sensory breaks
  • Lessen social anxiety by breaking the classroom up into smaller groups for learning–instrument sectionals in band, vocal parts in choir, different instruments or singing parts in general music
  • If a student is exhibiting withdrawal behaviors, consult with their special education teacher to learn what motivates the student to engage–whether that is a set apart time to play instruments or earning stickers for appropriate behavior
  • Combat helplessness by having expectations for the student–don’t just assume that the student is unable to participate. First learn the student’s abilities and capabilities and then adapt in the least restrictive way
  • Assist students with transitions by telling them the schedule for the class up front or by using a visual representation of the schedule that the student can implement
  • When a student fixates on an object/person/conversation topic, validate the statements before re-directing or offering the student the opportunity to continue the discussion after class

If you have more specific questions about students with whom you interact, consult with the professionals in your school who specialize in, and daily work with, exceptional children. These individuals may include special education teachers, paraprofessionals, behavioral specialists, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and music therapists. Working with differently-abled students in the music classroom can be challenging, but the rewards reaped from connecting with such students can be great in empowering both students and teachers to reach their full potential through the musical environment.

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