Tips For Teaching Students With Sensory Needs

As music teachers, we encounter a variety of types of learners. Not every student learns the same way, and through experience, teachers gain acumen to quickly understand strengths and weaknesses some students may have. While most students may easily fall into categories like visual learners, auditory learners, or kinesthetic learners, quite often teachers may find students that have unique sensory needs that need to be addressed within those categories.

A student with special sensory processing needs may respond to sound differently, or have a preference for certain textures over others. It’s possible that gross or fine motor skills may have developed at a different rate compared to his or her peers, or that he or she seeks sensory stimulation in very specific ways.

What are three ways an educator can help a child with sensory issues?

Three ways an educator can help a child with sensory issues include:

  • Stick to a routine.
  • Incorporate breaks.
  • Keep your promises.

Children with special sensory needs often require a routine to be kept. Without a routine, children will struggle to learn. This routine may include the same greeting, warm up exercises or warm up songs, taking a break at the same time, and a reward at the end of the lesson. Often this routine may take some time to settle in, and despite a child not responding right away, stay the course for at least a month before deciding to switch gears from lack of productivity.

With the routine, incorporate breaks when needed. This can include things like stretching, a quick run or jumping, or another physical activity to break up the focus. Some students may respond well to touch or pressure. Always consult with parents beforehand and ask questions about special sensory stimulation the child may seek.

Children with sensory processing needs can struggle to make changes when things fall out of routine. For this reason, it’s critical that any changes be communicated well in advance, preferably several weeks minimum. Consistent reminders about upcoming changes, incorporated into the daily or weekly routines will help. Commonly, though, many students may still not be able to deal with these changes. This is another reason that keeping promises becomes an important part of building rapport and instilling trust. Most children with sensory processing issues struggle to deal when expectations are not met, which can have a lasting effect for weeks and months afterward.

Is learning music good for sensory issues?

It’s highly recommended that parents consider music for sensory needs. Music can have far reaching effects on both adaptivity as well as gross and fine motor skill development. Instrumental music may be a great way for students to enhance their development while making music, supporting any physical therapy or occupational therapy goals simultaneously.

The variety of sensory equipment and their application used in music therapy can be advantageous for those with sensory processing needs. Because of the way these instruments and equipment are used and played, students will develop enhanced focus and attention, as well as motor function and coordination. Using music as a means to develop these skills can be beneficial, as it can simultaneously serve to create achievement and reward systems which encourage positive behavior, as well as boosting confidence and self expression which can ultimately relax those with sensory issues and severe anxiety.

How do you teach a child with sensory issues?

While incredibly rewarding for both teachers and students, teaching students with sensory needs requires patience, adaptivity, and creativity. A successful teacher employs different strategies in unique ways for all their students. While those with sensory processing needs may require a different approach, sensory processing teaching tips can be applied in a variety of ways, each modified to fit the situation and accommodate the student.

Teachers should consider incorporating activities that will help support and reinforce any OP/PT skills the student is developing. These activities might include certain finger or breath warm ups, body movements, breaks as mentioned above, using muscle memory exercises, and working with color codes on instruments to assign finger placements. Further, using different colors, textures, and specific movements can be helpful for a teacher to adapt each child’s needs in order to find success.

What are some sensory strategies?

Pressing keys on Piano to get startedFinding creative ways to help children with fine and gross motor skills will be important, especially with regard to cross-hemispheric development. Generally speaking, this cross hemispheric development would consist of using their motor skills to cross from the left side of their body over the right side, and vice versa.

Strategies to help children achieve this may include asking them to reach across their body to pick something up off the ground with a certain hand, or draw a wide arc on a chalkboard that illustrates a melodic contour.

Some great strategies to incorporate colors include using colored stickers on woodwind instruments and string instruments for finger placements, or using different colored stickers to indicate different notes or pitches on instruments.

Using low tack (painter’s) tape on stringed instruments or the piano can be helpful to indicate hand positions for those who gravitate towards a visual or tactile learning process. Velcro can be helpful with some instruments to help hold certain parts like a violin bow or drumstick.

For students who wish to pursue voice lessons, tactile methods may not support as much growth. Consider adapting by working with vowels and consonants in different ways, or addressing them one after the other instead of simultaneously. Since vowels are easier to produce, starting with vowels may lead to more early success, whereupon consonants can then be incorporated afterward.
Using pictures or drawings is a fantastic way of helping a student with sensory processing needs actually see what is being asked. Whether it’s pictures of the body and how it is to be used functionally, or an illustrated interpretation of sounds, making the visual connection will significantly help some students. For example, melodic contour can easily be illustrated by drawing lines up and down in the direction the contour falls. Rests may be conveyed through use of stop signs. Seeing pictures or illustrations representing the actual words of a song can be helpful when teaching the lyrics.

What are some ways I can adapt my overall teaching strategy to be more inclusive?

The bottom line is, when teaching children with sensory processing needs, you have to think outside the box. Learning might take place much differently than expected, but it can be just as successful and equally, if not more, rewarding. Some adjustments may need to be made in order to make it a successful environment.

Online keyboard lessons

It’s important to consider that this teaching experience may differ substantially from working with students without sensory processing challenges. Teachers must be aware of how students may express themselves differently. If your typical teaching style leans heavily on ear training, but the student may not wish to speak or verbally communicate, some adaptations will need to be made in order to get the necessary feedback from the student. It’s common that students with special sensory processing needs may not make eye contact or avoid participating initially. This is common and teachers should manage their expectations compared to other students, and adapt their teaching style accordingly.

If a student has a tactile sensory need, they may not like how a specific instrument feels. If this is the case, it may be worth first communicating with parents to see if switching instruments is a possibility. Students can try to use gloves that will disguise the feel of the instrument. While some instruments like guitar or violin may not allow for that, others may help children overcome that issue. In addition, working up to it is perfectly acceptable and fairly commonplace. Starting with a minute or two, and working up to a few minutes and more, is a great way to help children get accustomed to the new or foreign feel of the instrument

If a student may be sensitive to louder sounds, but still have a deep interest in music, teachers should understand there are countless ways to overcome this common sensory need. In the case of piano, consider using a keyboard where volume can be manually controlled to avoid any unsavory volume. Similarly, drums are a popular instrument for children with sensory needs because of their physical nature. Electronic drums can easily curb the volume issue to a level more palatable for any sensitive student.

Making a point to ask questions to gain a better understanding of your student is the best first step to incorporating more inclusive music teaching strategies for your teaching practice. Since every child will have different needs that may change constantly, having a broad understanding of how to address these different needs will allow a teacher to think on their feet and stay adaptive, ultimately yielding more success over time.

If you are interested in a career where you can make a difference in the lives of students interested in music, then see how Forbes Music Company can help you build your success as a teacher.

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