I am currently teaching two extremely hyperactive students. One is eight years old, and the other one is a teenager. Teaching piano students with ADHD and ADD can be quite intimidating, overwhelming, and frustrating, and it can very quickly drain your energy. At least, that is how I used to feel about these lessons. Let me give you a few ideas on how to teach piano to hyperactive students.
You need to know a few things when teaching piano students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and attention deficit disorder. Although many people use the terms to refer to the same condition, in reality, they are two different variants of the same disorder. The most significant challenges you can expect come from the students’ inability to focus and their impulsiveness, but you also need to be prepared to participate in a different type of social interaction than the one found with most neurotypical students. You will need to expand your creativity and teaching strategies. You will also need to learn to interpret the students’ reactions and behaviors not as signs of disrespect but as responses produced by their brains that are not within their control.
Keep reading for a full list of situations you will frequently encounter with these students. I will also give you a list of teaching strategies.
What is the difference between ADHD and ADD?
Currently, the gap between attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not very wide. Most specialists agree that the differences are subtle, but they are worth knowing. According to Dr. Martin Drapeau of McGill University, the main difference occurs when one of two symptoms prevails: inattention on the student’s part or impulsiveness in their behaviors.
When a student lives with ADD, problems arise from focused attention. We live in a world of stimuli, all with different degrees of importance. It is difficult for this type of student to differentiate between relevant stimuli and those that are not. Therefore, you can expect constant distractions and disorganization on their part.
It is also common for students with ADD to have difficulty following directions and regularly losing their belongings.
Those with ADHD, on the other hand, often have trouble with sustained attention. Dr. Drapeau calls it a hyperactive-impulsive presentation, and it can be identified in students who cannot sit still, remain silent when necessary, or take turns in conversation. The former is called “hyperkinesis,” an unusual increase in movement. If your piano student usually runs, jumps at times, or starts playing on the piano when he should not, in conjunction with other symptoms, you may be facing a case of ADHD.
The differences between ADHD and ADD are not final. Keep in mind that psychology is a science that continues to develop, and it is increasingly common to use the acronym ADHD to describe people with any of these cases. Besides, Dr. Drapeau insists that there is a third type of disorder, the hybrid. These cases can be the most challenging, as they present the symptoms of the two previous varieties. In any case, it is essential to have a diagnosis from a specialist to prevent parents or you as a teacher from applying the wrong label to a student.
Watch Dr. Drapeau talk about the different types of ADD and ADHD.
Here is a similar video in Spanish.
What challenges can you expect from piano students with ADHD or ADD?
As a teacher, you are probably reading this article to find out what to expect from a piano student with ADHD / ADD. Without a doubt, it is the first step to take. However, it will only be through experience that you will be able to understand the disparate and complex behavior of these types of students. Here are some of the more common challenges you can expect.
According to Anna’s testimony, an adult woman who shared her experience on the Understood.org portal, when she learned piano as a child, one of her main difficulties was completing her assignments. Therefore, her teacher believed that Anna was not suitable to play the piano for that single reason. So, she had to find another place to learn. You should bear in mind that completing tasks at home can interfere with the student’s difficulties remembering and achieving them.
Instructions are essential in a piano lesson. You can expect your student with ADHD / ADD to simply not follow the instructions you give, even if you consider your explanation to be the most appropriate. These are opportunities for you to stay in control of the situation by not losing patience. Note that, in your student’s mind, there is no conscious intention to disobey or rebel. The student’s emotions could be making him feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or even embarrassed, but his behavior is his brain’s natural response.
One of the biggest challenges may not come from learning but from the social dimension of taking piano lessons. You have to anticipate that students with ADHD / ADD do not always usually read the social cues we interact with. The student may seem indifferent to the lesson, interrupt your words with an impulsive phrase, or he might start playing while you are trying to illustrate a musical idea. Again, this is not a situation that occurs at the student’s will. It is an effort to fit in with the norms that we have defined as “normal.”
Here is a list of actual situations you need to consider.
- A student with ADHD/ADD does not necessarily want to misbehave. What you interpret as misbehavior might be a response to the student feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. A piano lesson, just like being at school, can be a stressful situation for a student.
- Students can blurt out incoherent sentences, or they could start playing random things at the piano. You have to consider that those impulsive behaviors are usually the result of an underdeveloped frontal lobe of the brain.
- Transitioning from one activity to another can be difficult. You might start a piano lesson with small talk and assume that all students will get down to business immediately. This is not the case with a student with ADHD/ADD. Walking into the piano studio and directly sitting still on the piano bench, trying to be quiet, and following every music instruction for the lesson’s entire duration is challenging.
- This type of student can seem a bit immature and even annoying when comparing them to other students of the same age. Bear in mind that their behavior might be a way to gain attention or try to fit in.
- Students with ADHD/ADD sometimes need more encouragement than other students. They are used to hear comments like “be quiet,” “pay attention,” or “you are not trying hard,” but these comments can make students feel like a failure.
- Many teachers are frustrated when they work with students who seem to forget the note names, rhythms, melodies, etc. Nine out of ten times, a student with ADHD/ADD is not trying to be difficult, but he really did forget.
- Students with ADHD/ADD can take much longer to complete a piece than a neurotypical student.
- Large piano pieces can overwhelm a student. The more you can break down a piece into small sections, the more successful he will be.
- Students with ADHD/ADD can be poor self-observers. Sometimes they have no idea they are acting or saying something inappropriate. Give your instructions to help the students self-observe while they work on their piano pieces or exercises.
- Since these students cannot read social cues well, you might likely feel like they are indifferent to piano lessons. In addition to being a piano teacher, sometimes we have to be social coaches to help students develop better social skills during lessons. This must be done in a loving and respectful way.
- Getting a student’s full attention before you start working on a piece or an exercise can make a huge difference. You can even do this by simply saying their name.
- Most parents are aware of their children’s behavior. For this reason, it is crucial to be in constant communication with the parents. Parents do want their kids to succeed. Let the parents know of any problems you had in a lesson and let them know their child’s weekly assignments. Most parents are very grateful that you are the one teaching their children. Parents do understand how hard it is to work with their children. Do not underestimate the importance you have in the student and his family’s lives.
- Be prepared to deal with irregular bursts of motivation. You might have a really good couple of lessons then a week when the student really struggles.
- If a student finds a piano piece or a music activity boring, it will be difficult for his brain to concentrate. These students often require more stimulation than neurotypical students.
- When a student plays on the piano while you are talking, it does not mean that the student is not listening to you. Moving their hands sometimes helps their brains to concentrate better.
- Be prepared to be creative with your teaching strategies. Do not assume all students must learn every piece you have ever taught in the same way you have always taught them. You will need to offer different ways of approaching a new piano piece or a music activity.
- Be respectful when it comes to the sensitivity of a student with ADHD/ADD. While it might seem that the student is not paying attention to you or is being indifferent, they can sense when you are frustrated or disappointed with them. Although they might not say it, you might be making them feel like they are a failure or not good enough.
- Piano students with ADHD/ADD can seem to be like people with no filters. Sometimes they cannot determine what is important and what is not important at that very moment.
Ten strategies to use when teaching piano students with ADHD and ADD
Taking the above into account, you may have realized that the challenge of teaching piano to a student with ADHD / ADD can be enormous. However, it will be rewarding for both of you to meet the challenge. The following is a list of 10 strategies you can employ to improve teaching in such cases.
- Let them move. If the student has difficulty staying still on the piano bench, allow him to stand up and walk from time to time. This can help him focus when working.
- Minimize distractions on site. If possible, keep the student away from windows or other objects that could distract him from his piano lesson for the day.
- Divide the class into manageable tasks. Set up small missions like finishing reading a measure, a phrase, or identifying the score’s first notes. Meeting these short-term goals gives the student a sense of progress without breaking concentration.
- Use visual resources. Using a physical timer helps the student know how much is left of the lesson or complete an objective. It is not about setting strict time limits but about communicating to the student how long the work time will last and how long it will take to have a break. I love using sand-timers. I have a set of sand timers of different sand colors. Each color represents different time intervals. Students always seem to enjoy using the timers. You can find them here.
- Use materials other than the piano. If you can, get educational and musical objects and instruments to create a varied student experience.
- Congratulate your student. Although sometimes you do not get an answer, students with ADD / ADHD appreciate receiving a congratulation just like anyone. Make sure to do it to keep your motivation high.
- Grant control by offering choices. The opportunity to choose with which sheet music to practice or what type of music to study can help the student feel more in control of the situation and, therefore, more willing to learn.
- Listen to music with them. It is proven that listening to the music to be interpreted helps this type of student to relate what is written in the score with the tasks to interpret it.
- Set clear rules. Having a list of rules to refer to in a neutral way when broken can guide the student to follow a better behavior and establishes a more defined social contract.
- Maintain communication with their parents. They are probably concerned about their kids’ learning. With healthy communication, you can learn more about the student, her tastes and experiences, to give a more personalized lesson.
Consider using rote teaching with hyperactive students. It is a great teaching strategy to use since the students don’t have to force their concentration reading music. Read more about it in this blog post.
- Do not be intimidated if you need to teach piano students with ADHD and ADD.
- Learn to understand what these disorders involve in order to remove any bias you may have against this type of student.
- The more informed you are about these disorders, the more you can adapt your teaching strategies to students with ADHD and ADD.
- Make a list of the possible situations you might encounter and create a list of strategies you could use for each case.
- Write a list of rules you will follow with these students. Have the list visible in your studio and frequently go over the list with your students.
- Prepare a variety of activities you can use according to the students’ level of attention.
- Consider using timers during a lesson to create short and specific activities.
- Involve the parents as much as possible in all assignments. Frequent communication is vital.
Want to read more about ADHD and ADD?
This is a great introduction to the latest research and essential strategies. ADHD 2.0: New Science and Essential Strategies for Thriving with Distraction — from Childhood through Adulthood by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey.
Feel free to email me if you have worked with piano students with ADHD and ADD and let me know if you have additional suggestions and successful strategies you have used.
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