by Dr. Melissa Martiros and Mrs. Michelle Bastien

Small Successes can be BIG Successes!

Last Fall, I began working with a youngster who faces big learning challenges at the piano, the result of his inability to self-regulate external stimulation. His senses are heightened—because of this, any input from the outside world puts him in a frenzy. Add to this his level of excitement about learning the piano and he cannot be contained: the impulse to release this energy from his body is far greater than his will to sit and learn. And so...he doesn’t. But he wants to. There is not a single part of me that doubts how badly he wants to. Sometimes he cries because of how badly he wants to. And as his mother works with specialists to find the proper diagnosis for proper medical treatment, he and I work to establish a rhythm in our lessons that will hopefully provide opportunity for him to learn what he wants to learn and what I strive to teach.

As part of this process, I continuously learn from him how to properly structure our time together so that the parameters of the pedagogical sequence match his unique learning needs. In just a few weeks, I learned that small successes are big successes. Let me say that again because it is important. For this student and many other kiddos with whom we work in our studios, small successes can be big successes. For instance, getting him to sit long enough to wiggle his fingers when prompted by numbers is an enormous accomplishment. Asking him to play C-D-E with a visual prompt requires the processing of too many prompts; asking him to copy me as I play C-D-E up the piano does not. 


I have learned that the song Happy and you Know It excites him, Uptown Funk makes him dance, and by using these songs as a form of positive reinforcement (along with a healthy dose of Skittles!), I can motivate him to accomplish all of the small steps that translate to big achievements at the piano. I have also learned that, despite his challenges, he is still a six-year old boy and that sometimes (just sometimes) his non-compliant behavior is less about over-stimulation and more about personal choice. You see, a key part of establishing rhythm and rapport with this particular child is knowing how to distinguish between behavioral outbursts that are a product of sensory overload (meltdown) and those that are a product of his desire to test boundaries and establish control (tantrum). And so, in addition to teaching him piano, my job is to determine in the moment, when to give space and redirect through compassion and when to stand firm and set boundaries, also through compassion.

Last Fall, we published a post on Inclusive Piano Teaching entitled Preventing and Managing Challenging Behavior: Part I. In it, guest blogger and behavior specialist, Michelle Bastien, offered tips and strategies for preventing behavior that included using the first/then game, arranging the studio environment for success, crafting motivational strategies around student interests, establishing rapport, avoiding assumptions, establishing consistency, and contextualizing behavior by examining the before/after sequence in order to prevent future re-occurrences. Since behavior is a most common AND most commonly misunderstood studio challenge, Michelle and I have teamed up again for what we hope to be a series of posts related to behavioral strategies in the piano studio.

In this post, we offer more specific strategies related to triggering and interpreting behaviors that will hopefully help you see greater success in your studios. A word of caution, however, no child is the same. What works for one may not work for the other and so we encourage you to gently weave these practices into your work and be okay with setting any strategy aside that does not work for you and/or your student(s).

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Small Triggers can have BIG Consequences

Let’s start with a hypothetical. You are in a lesson with Student A. Suddenly, he refuses to play. As you push him to be more cooperative, he responds by crawling under the piano. You continue to engage as he lays on the floor, crosses his arms, and starts to cry. Past history has taught you that when you get to this point with this student, it is impossible to move the lesson forward. Five minutes into this meltdown, you reach out to his mom for support. She picks him up off the floor and, upon exiting your home, he skips! Happy and loving, he gives you a hug and a smile. As he exits with a “see you next week!” you are left thinking “WHAT!?!” 

Sound familiar? 

While perhaps not identical, many teachers have been in a situation like this with Student A, or a similar type of situation with Student’s B, C, and D. For those of us who are not trained in behavioral therapy, it can be easy to perceive challenging behaviors as isolated as we are left scratching our heads over the escalation from 0-60 in less than a second. But behaviors don’t occur in a vacuum. Small triggers can have big consequences. For instance, you may have accidentally triggered Student A’s behavior by asking him to complete a task that felt too difficult in the moment, i.e. not breaking down the sequence into small enough steps. His impulse to crawl under the piano may have been an attempt to hide from the anxiety triggered by a request that felt too hard and, since he lacked verbiage to communicate his experience, hiding underneath the instrument was the next best thing to do. And as you pushed him to cooperate, his anxiety increased to the point of a meltdown. If you have built a strong relationship with your student, you have already set the stage for better understanding behaviors that will help you navigate behavioral episodes. By being proactive, you can prepare yourself to de-escalate, or better yet avoid, certain behaviors before they lead to big emotional releases. 

A Change in Behavior Always Communicates Something

The first step in preventing a bigger behavior in the future is to notice any changes in the child’s typical behavior. This could be a student who is usually very energetic suddenly presenting as solemn and silent, or a normally calm child entering your studio with high levels of anxiety. In non-verbal students, you might see an excess or motor or vocal stereotypy (repetitive verbal or movement patterns), scripting, pacing, pointing, shaking, and/or tinkering on the keys. There are a few ways to interact with students at this time to ensure your lesson stays on track. 

First, you could attempt to interpret and react accordingly. For example, you could say “I can see you shaking and frustrated, do you need help?” You could prompt the student to use a Functional Communication Response or an FCR. An FCR is a way to substitute a more positive communication behavior. For example, helping them notice and name their feelings, supporting them in asking for help, or to ask for what they need specifically, if you know. Use pictures or visuals to support any communication response and be sure to acknowledge and reinforce any attempt at communication. 

With verbal students, your proactive behavior might look a little different. The behaviors you might see are similar. For example, they might tap their pencils or shake their legs, they might be extra fidgety or pace, and they also could be tinkering on the keys. The first step is to take a supportive approach. Acknowledge their discomfort and ask what is wrong. This could be a time you offer a break and reinforce them for making positive choices. 

It is important to keep in mind that every child is different. But if you get to know your students and how they tick, you will be more likely to know when they are having anxiety, to observe changes in behavior, and to be able to best support and meet students where they are. A great strategy is to find a baseline for how long they can tolerate specific activities. If you know your student tends to start getting anxious after ten minutes, then start where they are at with intervals of ten minutes of work, two minutes of their choice activity as a reward. Once they are consistently successful you can increase the time on work tasks gradually. 

Precipitating Factors

Have you ever been in a situation where a student who is usually great at following directions, refuses to do anything for you? Or a normally focused student just seems distant? Or maybe you’ve been in a situation like the one referenced above with Student A, who seemed to go from 0-60 in less than a second? Admittedly, this can be quite frustrating, and as teaching professionals, it might be a natural reaction for us to internalize these behaviors and wonder what we are doing wrong. You may even become frustrated as your anxiety levels elevate. While we may not be responsible for all of the behaviors in all of the children with whom we teach, within our practice there are some things that we CAN take ownership of. For instance, we can make sure our environment is arranged in a way that is organized and free from unnecessary distractions. We can make sure we are prepared and organized for each student and that we are building solid relationships with our students from Day One. And we can attend trainings and educate ourselves on the best pedagogical strategies to elevate our practice. But at the end of the day, there will still be on-going to factors that effect a students’ behavior that are outside our locust of control. In Special Education, we call these Precipitating Factors. These could be internal factors, such as a health issue or a diagnosis of a disability,  or external factors, such as abuse, neglect, or poverty. 

Precipitating Factors can have a significant impact on learners’ motivation, attention, how they take in information and process it, and their overall affect. While we can’t control what our students internally bring with them to our studios, we do need to be aware that they exist and that how we react could inadvertently trigger a response from them. Keep in mind that behavior effects behavior, whether it’s their behavior effecting yours or vice versa. If you can keep calm and stay cool under pressure, it’s going to have a greater impact on the behavior of your students. 

L.R. Knost, an author and social justice advocate, is quoted as saying “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions it’s our job to share in our calm, not join in their chaos.” There are many things thatwill happen that are completely out of our control, but the greatest impact will be to learn and be more confident in what we can control and accept the things we cannot. At the end of the day, even the most challenging students need to know that you will still want to teach them even after they show you their worst. And that, my friends, is how the best relationships are built. 

Concluding Thoughts

So much of what we do as musicians involves intuitive processes. We have built within us an empathic ability to absorb music and gift it to others through performance and through teaching.  My musicianship is what allows me to do this work because I have been conditioned to connect with others in ways that extend beyond words and when it comes to understanding the challenging behaviors of small children, this empathy I have developed as a musician carries me far. When working with behaviors, it is important to understand the source. It is important to separate the behavior from the human (so much easier to do with children than with adults!).  In a student-teacher relationship at the piano, it is important not to take behaviors personally. And, when working with children with special needs, at the end of the most challenging lessons, it is so important that the child knows that he/she continues to be loved.

Melissa Martiros currently serves as Assistant Professor and Director of Music at Anna Maria College in Paxton, MA. She is the Founding Director of OpporTUNEity Music, a nationally recognized K-16 organization that brings musical opportunities to  underserved youth and children with special needs. She holds a DMA in Piano Performance and MS in Special Education from the University of Wisconsin Madison and an Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Vanderbilt University.  

Michelle Bastien holds the position Severe Special Education Teacher at East Brookfield Elementary School. She has previously served on the Crisis Team at the Grow School, as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Specialist for the Spencer/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..