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by Dr. Melissa Martiros and Mrs. Michelle Bastien, Guest Blogger

Follow-up from The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy

Several years ago, I worked in-home with an adolescent boy who had a tough time staying seated.  And by tough I mean every three minutes he bolted off of the bench.  And by bolted I mean he ran figure eights inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs, and everywhere else but inside the room where his lessons were held.  His mom was frustrated, I was frustrated, even his sister, who was often charged with chasing him down, was frustrated. In an effort to remedy the situation, I turned to behavioral psychology and, with the help and guidance of an Advanced Behavioral Analysis (ABA) expert in my special education program at the University of Wisconsin Madison, I was better able to understand the function of this particular student’s behavior and transform our lessons into something more positive for all of us.

For those of you who were unable to attend our special needs pre-conference seminars at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy (NCKP) this past July, you missed a fantastic session on Preventing and Managing Challenging Behavior in the Piano Studio. Mrs. Michelle Bastien, an expert on behavioral intervention strategies in the K-12 school system, provided a highly practical and informative session for piano teachers who struggle with managing negative behaviors in their studios. Since behavior is a most common AND most commonly misunderstood studio challenge, we have asked Michelle to provide her insights on behavioral intervention strategies for our IPT Blog readers. She and I have teamed up for a series of posts related to behavioral strategies in the piano studio.  Please direct any follow up questions to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Common Behaviors in the Studio: Possible Causes

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Let’s face it, piano teaching can be challenging.  For all of our training, practicing and expertise, communicating what we know to our students, passing along a love for music is at once one of the most rewarding and challenging things we do. This is made more challenging when we include children who display challenging behaviors, especially those students with special needs who may also require other accommodations.  The list of challenging behaviors includes: difficulty focusing and paying attention, difficulty making eye contact, difficulty staying on the bench and being still, bolting, tinkering on the keys, carelessness, impulsivity, stubbornness, self-injury, stimming and scripting, low frustration tolerance, negative attitude, extreme withdrawal or refusal to respond, emotional outbursts, and physical aggression.

Often times, these behaviors are misunderstood and misinterpreted by teachers, which ultimately makes the problem worse.  The list of possible causes includes: attention seeking, lack of interest or boredom, the need for choices or control, being overwhelmed by a difficult task, the need for self-regulation, the need for sensory input, hurt feelings or physical pain, a lack of understanding or misunderstanding, needing help, and fear of failure. Teachers can unknowingly reinforce and contribute to these negative behaviors by not understanding the function of the behavior, displaying inconsistency with teaching and management techniques, reinforcing the wrong behavior, displaying irritability or over-reliance on punishment, holding inappropriate expectations, giving up, providing nonfunctional, irrelevant and/or inappropriately paced  instruction, and exhibiting inflexibility or unwillingness to try new strategies or seek suggestions from other sources. We offer a list of preventative measures below:

Be Proactive

The first question most people start with when coming up with the best behavior management strategy is “where do I begin?”. Many people wait until they encounter their first intense behavior episode to start strategizing, but to truly be successful with students who exhibit behaviors, it is important to take a proactive approach and prepare for the worst, while expecting the best! Some really amazing proactive strategies could include using visuals for schedules and expectations. Anxiety around the unknown is a huge stressor for our students on the autism spectrum. Knowing the schedule and the routine of the lesson will help them know what they have achieved and prepare them for what is coming next. For some students using a “First/Then” board with pictures is especially helpful, and pairing it with repetitive language such as “first we will work on notes, then we will play a game” helps them get cognitively prepared.

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Another way to be proactive is to arrange your environment for success. I worked with a teacher once who came to me so frustrated because she had a math student who tipped over the math cart and threw the materials on the ground. Everyday. “Well,” I said to her, “have you considered moving his seat, or the materials, where he can’t get at them?” Such a simple solution, but when we are struggling with a behavior we can’t always see outside the stress of the situation. But planning ahead can help stop a behavior before it has a chance to occur. When arranging the environment, it is also important to know what your student’s triggers are. Is there a demand that typically will set them off or an area of the lesson that they find particularly difficult? If there is, find a way to recondition that negative into a positive. This could be as easy as breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks or situating it right before a “student chosen” activity that they prefer.

Motivating factors are another huge way to be proactive in your lessons. Do you know your students’ likes and dislikes? Are you utilizing positive reinforcement? Knowing what will motivate your students to comply with directions and follow through with instructions will help keep the lesson moving in a successful direction! Along the same lines, it is important for you to stay positive in a lesson (even when you are feeling anything but)! Anxiety creates anxiety and a great deal of children who are on the spectrum read nonverbal cues to a tee so if you aren't feeling it, they aren't either!

One of the best practices when it comes to teaching is to build a relationship with your student. It doesn't matter if you're teaching piano or the Pythagorean Theorem, the best way to support your student is to know how they act on a typical day, so you know when something seems a bit wonky.  For example, I was processing a particularly intense behavior episode with a teacher one day and she said “I don’t know what happened. He went from 0-60, he was fine one minute and then the next he was tipping desks and throwing pencils.” While I understand behavior can seem very sudden, it does not occur in a vacuum, so I asked her what happened right before he tipped his desk. She responded with “he refused to complete his math paper and ripped it up.” So I responded again with “what happened before that?” She then gave me a list of behaviors that happened within the classroom until she finally got to “I don’t know, he came in this morning with a pout on his face and in a really bad mood.” “Eureka!!!! There is it!!” That is the precise moment she should have interjected herself. As teachers we have more control over preventing a behavior if we start by truly understanding the source. 

To wrap it up, behavior prevention has many layers, and while we will be going into greater detail at a later time, there are a few take-away points I hope you keep in mind when working with more challenging students.  First, and most important, building relationships is crucial to reducing behaviors in the studio. The better you know your students the better chance you have of knowing what will de-escalate them faster, or what to avoid if you want to prevent the behavior completely.  Being consistent is key! Make a set of ground rules and follow them. Kids will test you to see how far they can go and where the lines are they can’t cross.  If you keep changing where the line is they will never learn. Lastly, never assume. Assumptions can bring down a lesson and a relationship fast (whether it’s assuming you know the intentions of the student or whether it’s assuming the student knows expectations without being explicitly taught) and can be so damaging to your understanding that student. It will be a wall that separates the two of you. Using these strategies will help break down those walls and allow you to forward in your studio in a positive direction!

Michelle Bastien holds the position Special Education Teacher at Shepard Hill High School. She has previously served on the Crisis Team at the Grow School, as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Specialist for the East Brookfield School District, as a Graduate Research Assistant and Advanced Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Teacher at the New England Center for Children, and as the ABA Coordinator at Webster Middle School.  She holds a MA degree in Severe Special Needs from Simmons College. She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..