Helping Special Needs Students Adjust to Online Lessons

Moving your studio online can be a wonderful opportunity for students to learn in new ways & stay connected with you even when you can not be in the same physical place.  However, some students may need a little more than, “We are moving online!  Here’s how!”  Specifically helping special needs students adjust to online lessons takes a little more planning.

Why is this more challenging?

Special needs students, in particular, can have needs that your typical student may not have or at least not to the same degree.

Not only do special needs students typically need a teacher that is willing to experiment until the right approach is found.  But, they need a teacher who “gets” them.

Previous rejection

Did you know that there are companies that offer extra-curricular activities will tell parents their special needs student can not attend?  Or, tell them their child can no longer attend when the child has a class they act out in?

I want to stress that this is not all companies.  And, I’m guessing that the reason this happens is they do not have staff that are prepared to adapt to their special learners.  They are doing the best they know.  Unfortunately, it is parents & their child who are left in the lurch.

The end result is that every single parent of a special needs students in my studio has become incredibly emotional when they found out that not only was I willing to take on their child but that I was expecting rough days.  I have always told these parents that when, not if, but when these lessons happened I was committed to working with them to figuring it out.

If you have special needs students in your studio, there is a good chance they (whether it is the parent, child or both) have felt rejected when the going gets tough.

Moving special needs students to online lessons will have some rough patches as everyone figures out how this will look & sound like in lesson.  It’s a perfect situation to bring up old anxieties.

New routine & way of doing things

What will happen to your special handshake?  Or, the way you sit next to your student & breath with them when they are upset?

There are a million tiny little things you do in a lesson that for you seem completely natural.

But, those things are what has tied this student to you.

Special needs students moving to online lessons may feel they are losing all their normal, comforting routines with you.  Especially if they prefer to sit closer to you … that personal space bubble might be almost non-existent with the people they feel comfortable with.

Before the lesson

If you have had to switch suddenly to online lessons, it will be a little more difficult to prepare students beforehand.  But, there are ways to help this transition go smoother.

  • Outline exactly what will be happening to the parent.
  • Send a special message to your student.
  • Ask if there are any questions or concerns … then answer them patiently.

While these steps are important for all students, they are especially important when moving special needs students to online lessons.

Outline what will happen

I would recommend a detailed email instead of a text for this step.

Keep in mind parents are feeling nervous about what is coming up.  Chances are they have never dealt with this situation before so they will need your guidance on what the expectations are.


  • The platform that will be used, including instructions on whether it is an app that will need to be downloaded or opened in a browser.
  • If there is any additional equipment that is needed … & if so what the cost is.
  • Who will ‘call’ whom.
    • FaceTime/Skype: I recommend teacher calls student
    • Zoom & other meeting platforms: Student & teacher log into meeting separately.  I recommend setting up a waiting room or clicking that attendees can not join in until invited to do so.
  • Instructions for how to login:
    • If using an online meeting platform (Zoom is very popular right now), including the meeting ID & password if necessary.
    • If using FaceTime/Skype share your platform-specific contact info so the student recognizes it.  Be sure to get their specific contact info as well so you can call them.
    • Depending on how much time you have, record or find a tutorial video to guide those new to the program.
  • What will be different … whether it is the camera angle, way activities are done, etc. type it in!
  • What will happen if things fall apart on the tech side … & they will at some point.

Special message

This will depend on the amount of time you have … & what would work best for helping your special needs student get ready for online lessons.

For example, it could be added to the previous email or you could send a text a few days later.

A phone call in which you talk to your student may help them feel like you haven’t changed in your excitement to see them & commitment to still teaching them.  There is something about hearing someone’s voice that can reach them in a way the written word just can’t.

Or, you could prepare a quick personalized video if your student will do better seeing you as you speak.

Make time for questions & concerns

Normally I have quite strict boundaries on when I answer client emails/texts/phone calls.  However, when I had to unexpectedly move all lessons online I knew that it would be necessary to relax those boundaries to best meet the needs of my clients & students.

Expect questions & concerns.

Be honest.  Did you have questions or concerns when figuring out the ins & outs of moving lessons online? 

Then, of course, your clients will as well.  In fact, they will probably have more because they have much less control over the situation than you.  You ultimately choose what work for you & your clients must follow your lead.

Hopefully, your initial email will answer many concerns & questions but there will always be something that doesn’t work quite right for someone & they need a little guidance.

An example of this is the Google folders I set up for each student.  Link sharing was set & then emailed.  But, I forgot to set it to “edit” so students could actually fill out the information they were supposed to.  And, I found out about this at 8 pm on a Friday.

Normally I would not be answering emails at that point, but since this was new & I was willing to answer questions at that point.

Emails were not solving the situation so I ended up calling my client & putting them on speakerphone so I could troubleshoot what was not working for their family.

Not quite how I expected to spend my evening, but for the very short term, it was necessary to make the transition as smooth as possible.

In Lesson

The first lesson is key when helping special needs students adjust to online lessons.

Are there routines you can put into place that will help your student feel connected even though you are apart?


How can you greet your student as soon as you see them?

  • Let them know how excited you are to see them & have them share their learning from the week with you.
  • Make eye contact.  While very simple, it lets your student know they have your full attention.

When our twins were younger, they would hug the iPad during FaceTime calls while they were visiting my parents for a couple of weeks.  It helped them feel more connected to us even though we couldn’t give hugs in person.

If you want, make a special greeting together if you think this will help your special needs student adjust to online lessons better.


Set up a routine as quickly as possible in the lesson.  Let your student know what to expect for each part of the lesson.

For special needs students, a visual schedule can do wonders to help relieve anxiety.  It gives the student control over something new.

That being said, take it easy in the first few weeks.  Give your students (& you) time to adjust to this new way of doing lessons.

And, if something goes wrong … laugh!

This can set the whole tone of lessons & lets your student know that if you aren’t worried … they don’t need to be either.

And when your student does something great … do an air high 5!

You & the student high 5 the camera on your device …. just be sure to show the student how far away from the camera they should stop.  I show them the distance holding my palms about a hand width apart.

Saying ‘see you later’

We remember beginnings & endings the best.  So while it may be tempting to rush off to the next lesson, don’t!  This can undo all the positive things you have created during lesson time.

Do a quick review of:

  • What happened in the lesson
  • What is expected during the week: practice, videos/pictures you expect to be sent, etc.
  • Something you are really excited about … whether it happened in the lesson or something you know your student will have accomplished for the next lesson

Take a moment to answer any questions, then …

Create a ‘see you later’ routine!

It can be:

  • Wave goodbye … an oldie, but goodie
  • Air high 5
  • Special routine all your own
    • You both do the funky chicken, pretend you are fish/dinosaurs/etc. … whatever you choose as long as it makes you both smile.

After the first lesson, I would recommend checking in with the parent the same day as the lesson for their thoughts on how it went & then a few days later to check in with practice.

Helping Special Needs Students Adjust

With a focus on maintaining the relationship you’ve developed with your special needs students, there is no reason why they will not adjust to online lessons over time.

Prepare parents & students as best you can, keep things lighthearted in lessons & get ready to create great memories with your families as you transition over to online lessons!

And once you have helped them transition, keep them engaged with great music!

Special needs students especially do well with pattern-based, rote pieces they can relate to.  For story-based pieces that link the story & musical elements, click below to purchase “Sam’s Life”.

Click here to purchase Sam's Life

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