Music is an essential piece of learning in elementary school curriculum. As school systems struggle to balance their budgets with the educational needs of their students, school boards are recognizing the importance of including music. For the student with special needs, including music is more than just adding to the list of classes the student must take, it is an essential part of learning that has cross-curricular impact.
Changes in educational law have given students of all ability levels access to a full-range of curriculum. Rather than being segregated into separate classes, many students with special needs are being mainstreamed into general education classes. Thus, classroom teachers may have a mixed group of students, all with varying levels of ability. If you are a music teacher, this can present a unique set of challenges, but also a wonderful opportunity to engage with all students.
Your primary goal should be to create a design for learning that will give all students the chance to be successful. This design should include instructional opportunities for students of all ability levels, disabilities, learning styles, attention spans and motivation levels. To effectively succeed in a music class with students with special needs, you must present material multiple times, assess the student’s understanding, and engage the student.
This last step is often the most difficult. However, there are some ways, including the following, to get students to connect with a lesson:
Draw attention to what students have in common.
Look for similarities between other children and students with special needs. Focus on how the children are the same—not on their differences.
Use the “buddy” system.
Assign partnerships between students with special needs and conscientious, mainstream students.
Offer extra help.
Let students with special needs know that you are available as needed, before and/or after school or during lunch.
Get students to focus on you.
During the lesson, be sure to speak clearly and slowly, allowing students to process your directions. Give one direction at a time.
Find out the special characteristics of the students you’ll be teaching.
Often, just understanding what the unique needs of each student may be will help you develop more effective lesson plans.
Make all students feel they belong.
Create an atmosphere where all students feel welcomed. Be careful to use person-centered language when referring to students. Use phrases such as “The student with Asperger’s” instead of “The Asperger’s student.” This distinction, while small, keeps the focus on the student, not on his or her disability.
Attend IEP meetings.
IEP meetings are opportunities for collaboration between teachers and parents to help the student succeed. Use these meetings to find out what has been working in other classes and to share strategies and goals for the student in your class with the student’s regular classroom teacher.
Use assistants or paraprofessionals effectively.
If a paraprofessional is assigned to attend class with a student with special needs, enlist this person’s help in keeping order within the class and ensuring that the student can fully participate in all activities. Here are some ways to do this:
---Ask if there have been any problems or issues during the day that may prevent the student from participating in the lessons.
---Encourage the paraprofessional to participate in the activity with the students.
---Ensure the aide knows your classroom rules and enforces the rules based on your chosen discipline plan.
---Ask for any insight into the student’s behavior in other classes, and maintain a two-way dialogue about the student’s success in learning.
Develop an effective classroom management strategy.
This working set of guidelines for behavior and consequences can help maintain order, establish the type of behavior you wish to encourage, and provide boundaries for students to follow. Use the following guidelines when creating your classroom management plan:
---Allow all students to help create the rules of the classroom. This keeps them invested in following the rules.
---Keep the rules short and easy to understand and enforce.
---Use positive language. Saying “Walk” is more effective than saying “Don’t run.”
---Remind students of the rules frequently--not just when someone has broken them. Special needs students need the repetition.
---“Catch” students following the rules and use them as examples of good behavior.
---Enforce the consequences consistently. Students will quickly learn that the rules are only suggestions if you fail to follow through or don’t apply the rules equally.
---Be realistic about student capabilities. It can be frustrating for both you and the student when your expectations are beyond what the student can handle. Classroom activities should be both age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate.
---Pre-empt behavior problems by engaging the potential misbehaving student in a positive activity. Enlist his or her help during the lesson: let the student pass out instruments, take attendance, choose the first activity, etc.
Including students with special needs in a mainstream music class presents a unique set of challenges for the teacher, but can be a success with careful planning. All students, regardless of ability level, benefit from music instruction and must receive the opportunity to develop a love and appreciation for the wonder of music.