Adapting Online Group for Special Learners

One of the most popular activities to have in a music studio is group lessons.  It’s a chance for students to get together, have fun, learn & visit.  When you teach an instrument that tends to be solo (like the piano), this becomes all the more important for keeping students coming back each year.  But, is adapting online group lessons even possible for special learners?  While still meeting the needs of your other students?  Yes!

Inclusive Group Lessons

We live in an amazingly diverse world!  And, one of the things I love is that we are all our own unique snowflakes. 

There is something that each of us brings to our lives & those around us that make the world a better place.  No one else will be able to bring that to this world the way you can.

The same goes for our students.

We have always had inclusive group lessons in my studio.  This doesn’t mean my special learners have always attended group lessons.  My little guy with the amazing smile needed a year before he felt comfortable being with everyone.  For that first year, I talked with him & his mom beforehand to invite him & see how he felt about attending.  When he was ready, it only took a couple of group lessons with his mom attending before he decided mom no longer needed to be there.  Because I was matter-of-fact about what he needed for his sensory sensitivities, my other students barely even blinked over the adaptations.

As his confidence grew, so did his contributions to our group lessons.  My little guy with the amazing smile sometimes had a different way of seeing or hearing something that led to interesting discussions or “hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way” moments for all of us.  His enthusiasm was contagious & willingness to just try inspired other students who tended to be harder on themselves.

While adapting group lessons is more work, the results are well worth it!

Online Group Lessons

Online group lessons are in a category of their own.  While there are many things you can do the same as in-person lessons, there are a few differences.

Unless you use break-out rooms, everyone will be doing the same activities.  This can lead to some challenges when you have students of different levels or abilities.

Siblings are sharing a screen.  This can lead to play-fighting/pushing so they are both on screen, trying to one-up each other or finding it difficult to share their family instrument.  Since our twins have variations of this behaviour daily I know this is completely normal behaviour.  A quick word or non-verbal signal tends to take care of the issue quickly.

Students may find it more difficult to ask a question.  But, a non-verbal signal or using the chat feature can easily solve this.

For special learners, there can be too much auditory or visual stimulation which triggers coping behaviours.

While there can be some challenges with adapting group lessons for online, it doesn’t have to be complicated or take a lot of your time. It just takes a bit of planning.

6 Strategies for Special Learners

Below are some strategies for adapting online group lessons to help your special learners feel confident, just like my little guy with the amazing smile.  

1.  Communicate often

It won’t be enough to just let them know the day, time & link for the online group lesson.  Talk about the group lesson in the weeks coming up.  Remind your student the routine for that week will be different.  

Just like my little guy with the amazing smile & his mom, talk to both student & parent about online group lessons.  What types of activities will you do?  What are the expectations?  What concerns do they have?

It is normal for both the student & parent(s) to feel nervous.  Answer any questions, no matter how trivial they may seem.

Do the same after the group lesson as well.

2.  Give a sneak peek

Most students will be fine doing a new activity during the group lesson.  An important way for adapting the online group lesson is to give a sneak peek to your special learners.

Whether you have in-person or online group lessons, it’s important to have a routine.  Not only does it keep things running smoothly, but it ensures your special learners have a way of monitoring how the group lesson is progressing.  It also gives a sense of security & familiarity.  Without this, expect more coping behaviours as your student tries to follow what is going on.

Do the same types of activities in the lead-up weeks.  For example, if you plan on doing a digital escape room during the online group lesson, do some during your special learner’s regular lesson time.  

Practice how your students will let you know they have a question or something to share.  Practice how students will answer group questions.

This is one less thing to overwhelm your student.  And, it gives them a chance to shine when everyone else is there!

3. Reduce auditory & visual overstimulation

Many special learners can feel overstimulated in group situations.  Which makes adapting online group lessons all the more important.

Here are some tips to reduce this:

  • Mute everyone’s microphone.  Only the person talking or playing gets to have their audio on.
  • Use hand signals for students to answer.
    • For example, I hold up my fingers (1, 2, 3, 4) & have the students vote on the correct answer.
  • Keep what is on the screen minimal.
    • This may mean showing the parent or student beforehand how to switch to “speaker view” rather than leaving it on “gallery view”.
    • When playing a game, hold the card to your webcam or even better screen-share so it is easy to see.
  • Choose videos that are not visually cluttered or auditorally move fast.
    • When someone speaks on video, choose someone who speaks clearly & doesn’t rush.
    • Think about what needs to be on the screen. If there are a lot of extras, choose a different video.

Remember, you can always go more in-depth with a resource, but overwhelming a student will just lead to inattention or coping behaviours.

4.  Be flexible

Even with adapting the online group lesson, it can still be hard for your special learner to stay focused the whole time.  Plus, this is good teaching practice regardless of the student!

Plan more than you need so that it is easy to switch quickly to something else.   You can always come back to it later. 

While I have gotten much better over the years at pacing & choosing the right activities, sometimes an activity doesn’t get the enthusiasm I had thought.  It could be it was too hard, too complex, or just didn’t meet my students’ needs at that moment.  Dropping an activity or coming back to it later is the best way to handle the situation.  As we found out in Mean Girls, “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen!”

5. Be active

So many of our special learners do not do well when required to sit for longer periods of time.  And as teachers, we can also use the extra movement after sitting at a computer/piano for our teaching day.

What are some ways you can keep your students’ attention all group lesson?

  • Move to the music.
    • Dance, walk, sway
    • Figure out the meter
    • Reach high/low for dynamics
  • Have fun with rhythm
    • Make new actions for each type of note.
    • Come up with silly words or sentences.
  • Add active components to games
    • Your team gets the correct answer, the other team has to do a burpee.
    • Stand on the other side of the room, when the teacher calls out a note, race to the piano to play it.
  • Don’t require students to sit in front of their screen.
    • While we don’t want students to wander away, letting your special learner sway, bounce, stand or walk while still in view of the screen helps them focus on the lesson … not on their need to move.

Once my studio moved permanently online, being active became incredibly important. It helped me work out those aches & pains that can come from too much sitting. Even more importantly though, having students move around off the bench during lessons, their focus increased & the learning came easier! Our lessons became more efficient & the gap between in-person & online learning disappeared.

6.  Have a back-up plan

Talk with the student & parent beforehand about what will happen if the student is overwhelmed or needs a break from the group lesson.

Sometimes your special learner will be having an off day.  We all have these!

  • Remind them that you are doing everything you can to support their child & are adapting the online group lesson for the best success.  But if it isn’t working, their child will do something else.
  • A special hand signal that lets the teacher know the student is taking a short break.
  • A way for the parent to know when they need to step in to support their child … without calling attention to their child.
  • How you as a teacher will let the student know they need a little break … without calling them out in front of everyone.
  • Have a back-up activity the student loves & can do independently.  Send it before the group lesson as a “just in case”.
  • If the back-up activity is used, ensure it can be tied into the group lesson so the student can share it when they rejoin.  This ensures the student feels they are part of the group lesson, not banished for “bad” behaviour.

Rather than be surprised something happened, understand these things happen.  Knowing what the plan is beforehand can bring down the anxiety for the student … which means it will be less likely they will need it.

Adapting online group lessons

Adapting an online group lesson requires a little more planning, but it is well worth having your special learners able to join their peers & studio community!

If you are looking for activities that can be done for online group lessons, digital escape rooms are a fantastic option!

For escape rooms that are both educational & active, check out the “Happy Halloween” digital escape room below.

Purchase Happy Halloween digital escape rooms!

NOTE: This article was originally published on October 21, 2020. It’s been updated to reflect the lessons learnt & tips I’ve picked up since then!

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