Years ago, I was a junior high teacher at a special needs school. It came with lots of joy when a student would have a breakthrough behaviourally, developmentally, or academically. But, it also came with its challenges.
While most students eagerly await winter break & the change in routine, for many special needs students this can be a time of stress. At the school, we always knew that December & June were going to be tough months for both students & teachers. For students, the upcoming change in routine tended to lead to anxiety, more frustration with routine tasks, & a big focus on what the new routine over the holidays would be. For teachers, it required a lot more patience & an eagle eye as we did our best to keep things from escalating.
Signs it may not be the most wonderful time of the year for your student
In piano lessons, some signs that your student may be struggling with the upcoming holidays are:
- Easily frustrated with any mistakes, no matter how minor
- After a mistake, starts on a loop of playing the same section without slowing down or figuring out how to fix the problem. Student will find it difficult & upsetting when asked to stop.
- Gets highly agitated with new music or concepts (“I can’t do this!” is a common phrase.)
- When you try to correct or provide guidance, student plays louder, ignores or gets angry.
- No longer makes eye contact & may even sit facing away from you
- Gets up from the bench & paces (or in more extreme cases, just leaves the room)
- Hitting the piano when frustrated
- Sits hunched into him/herself
- No longer wants to talk … even about their favourite subject.
- Says they hate lessons & don’t want to take them anymore … After talking it through, you realize their stress & anger has nothing to do with lessons or you, but something that happened during the week … Usually ends with “I do really like piano lessons with you, but I just am so frustrated about ‘x’.“
Tips to defusing the anxiety & frustration for your student
If one or more of your students is feeling anxiety about the upcoming change in schedule, there are ways to help them have successful lessons & learn coping skills at the same time.
- Use routine as a way to gauge mood: At the beginning of each lesson, I ask my students how their week was & a question based on something they told me the week before (i.e. project they are working on, theatre show they attended, etc.). Their answer can tell a lot in terms of their mental & emotional state going into lesson.
- Offer yourself as a listening board: If a student is really truly upset at the start of lesson, moving into the lesson plan is not going to do any good. Ask open ended questions to get a dialogue going, IF the student is up for it. Don’t worry about if they don’t want to face you or make eye contact. If they are willing to talk, that’s a huge success. Empathize & validate how they are feeling.
- Use a calm tone of voice: It can be frustrating when a student hits the piano … again. But, we are the adults & need to show our students how to deal with their frustrations. No matter what, keep your voice quiet, calm & matter of fact. “Place your hands in your lap. Even when upset, you can not hit the piano.” Once the student has complied, you can give them an action to physically work out the anxiety & frustration.
- Guided breathing exercises: This is one of my favourite & most successful strategies. Have the student sit or stand & guide them in their breathing. “Take a deep breath in through your nose. Let it out slowly through your mouth.” As I do the actions with the student, I mentally count in my head to 4 on each inhalation/exhalation & increase that count to 5. Sometimes it helps to have the student place their hand on their stomach so they can physically feel the air go in & out of their body. Even if the student isn’t doing this exactly like you, praise any effort they make. Depending on the age of the student, either you can determine when they are calm enough or have them tell you (thereby giving them control over the situation).
- Change their physical location: Some students do well standing at the piano so they can make small shifts as they play. Others do well pacing in the room for a couple minutes before transitioning back to the piano. And, others do well with guided movement well away from the piano (another of my favourite strategies). Start with an easy routine (i.e. lift your arms above your head, drop them down low, out in the front, way out back, hula to the right, hula to the left).
- Some of my favourites to end with are dance moves from the sixties. Who doesn’t love The Swim? Even if you student doesn’t join in, they will be watching & maybe even laughing.
- If you can, get them to smile … or better yet laugh: This tends to be the sign that we can move into the actual piano part of the lesson. It can be something simple as, “That was so much fun! Boy, I bet I looked pretty silly doing The Q-Tip. What do you think?” A little self-deprecating humour can go a long way to help a student focus outside of themselves.
- Offer a way for the student to check-in over the holidays: Every year, I tell my students that I would love to hear from them over the holidays. If they have a question or want to share a milestone (like a performance), I encourage them to send me a text or email. They know that while I will be spending time with my family & may not get back to them right away, I WILL get back to them. Last winter break, I got videos of a student’s first time snowboarding & of students performing their songs. One student sent me a text saying, “Hi, Mrs. Rosemarie! This is awesome!” (He was referring to the fact he could text me directly from his new iPad.) Sure it may not be piano or music related, but it provides a continuity over the holidays that some students need.
Heading into the most wonderful time of year …
Even though this time of year can be stressful for some of our students, there are ways to bring joy into each lesson. And, perhaps even teach a few coping strategies along the way?
And, for a little humour (or perhaps dance ideas for lesson) enjoy this clip from “Hitch”.
Have a great start to the Christmas season!