by Dr. Scott Price

Studio environment can play an important role in the success of our students with special needs.  We don’t tend to think of the studio as being more than a tool in the lesson, but the actual environment and the objects present can sometimes be the deciding factors in the success or failure of a lesson. Maintaining a special-needs-friendly environment will be appreciated by students and parents, and a well-maintained space can become a welcoming and safe environment for students who may experience stress and anxiety on a moment-to-moment basis.

Many of our students with special needs experience over-stimulation or hyper-sensitivity in their daily lives. Florescent lights, loud sounds, strong odors, and even the feel or tightness of some clothing fabrics against the skin can make it difficult for students to focus and maintain concentration during the lesson.

Creating a studio environment that alleviates or is free from many of these types of distractions is one key to opening the door to success for them in their music studies. Sometimes just getting out of the car, navigating the sidewalk, and the sounds of traffic and people, the doors and elevators, can be overwhelming. Some students may need a few moments at the beginning of a lesson to be quiet and acclimate to their surroundings, and to decompress from any outside stimuli that have been overwhelming during the day. Others may need a short chat with their teacher to achieve a sense of normalcy and calm, and to decompress.

Unwelcome distractions may include:

Temperature – is the studio too hot or too cold? Some students may be sensitive to temperature changes and may need time to appropriately put on or take off a jacket or sweater, and adjust to the new temperature.

Perfume/Cologne – while one or two sprays of perfume or cologne may be barely noticeable to a teacher, a hyper-sensitive student may experience a heightened awareness of the smell that is overwhelming and distracting to them. The same overwhelming effect may be caused by household perfumes and cleaners.

Lighting – the flickering of florescent lights (and the color of that type of lighting), may be very distracting for students. Ambient daylight, or other types of lighting may be less harsh and more conducive to the learning environment.

Computers/technology – active computer screens or tablets, or other technology may be distracting especially if email/text alerts and phone ringtones intrude on the lesson.

If a student is also distracted by the hammers or dampers that are visible in the grand piano, simply close the lid during the lesson to avoid the distraction.

While some of these things may be distractions to a student’s attention and to the learning process, they may also be used constructively as aids to learning and concentration. The key is in using them in a conscious way with clearly articulated guidelines and rules on usage, and making sure the student understands the purpose and appropriate timing and use of the distraction.

Welcome distractions may include:

If a student experiences anxiety or stress, worry beads or stress balls may be used as a means of relieving or managing those feelings. In some cases, these objects can aid students who experience motor-planning skill deficits or who have poor body awareness.

Just as active computer screens can be a distraction, they may also alleviate stress and anxiety if the student needs a short break from the intellectual or emotional tension of the lesson. Well-planned and assigned computer or tablet/technology time may provide a break in the intensity of the lesson.

Taking a few moments to allow a student to jump or run around may also alleviate the same feelings. Well-planned and assigned physical activity may be used to alleviate stress and anxiety, and may help the student retain or redirect focus on the lesson. We often try to limit stimming behaviors, but they may sometimes be necessary to retain focus.

Above all, it comes down to knowing your students, what their distractions are, what their triggers are, and how to help them focus, decompress, and get ready for the learning process. An unplanned studio environment can be a distraction. A well-planned studio environment can help to alleviate stressors and anxiety, and distractions can be turned into well-planned enhancements to the lesson and learning process. What if you are not sure about what is or what is not a distraction and how to avoid or use them? Parents, therapists, and even the students themselves can tell or show us how to evolve our teaching to meet their needs. Never be afraid to ask and open the line of communication.

Stop back often for new entries. If you have subjects that you would like to see addressed, please send a short note to the authors at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. We will do our best to respond in future blog entries. Please note that the email address is for topic suggestions only. The authors cannot respond to individual email requests for advice. We will do our best to address suggestions for topics in future postings.

Thank you for reading, and we hope to see you back soon.

In addition, The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy will include workshop offerings on teaching students with special needs. The next conference is scheduled for July 26-29, 2017 in Lombard, IL (a suburb of Chicago). Information is available at http://keyboardpedagogy.org/national-conference-info2