Verbally unresponsive student


Connie Sunday said: Oct 28, 2011
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
667 posts

It seems like no matter how long I’ve been teaching, I always encounter something new. I have a new student who started violin about six weeks ago. Nine years old. She’s doing beautifully except for one odd behavior during the lesson. When I ask her a question, she just looks at me. She doesn’t respond. And when I say that a response is required (after an appropriate wait time, to give her a chance to respond), she speaks so softly I can’t hear her.

I feel like calling her mother and asking her if there’s anything she should tell me. It’s not a learning disability in the sense of being unintelligent. I’m not sure what it is. Incredible shyness? I don’t want to offend the mother and have her quit.

Anybody experience this from another student, also?


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Patricia Cooper said: Oct 29, 2011
 3 posts

This is most likely an extreme shyness or, carried to a greater
extreme, selective mutism; (extreme social anxiety which causes paralyzing
fear that makes it hard to get the words out, you can see the anxiety
in the eyes and hear it in the voice if they speak). It is possible
that she talks up a storm at HOME! Violin may be a wonderful
stress reliever and confidence builder. Best not to push for
verbalization, this can be a pressure free zone of music
challenge and accomplishment. Avoid false praise and over
compensation. Just treat her as a “normal” child. Ask her
if she is willing to nod yes or no, or if she will write questions
down for you if she is having a day when she just will not talk.
When she does answer softly, you can say things,
like, “ok yes, thank you for letting me know that”, or “ok good point…
let’s try the next thing”, or “yes, I agree”, just anything to acknowledge her
Tell her she can keep working on talking at home or with her
teachers at school, but you just enjoy being with her for her music, and
do appreciate her comments when she makes them as it helps you to
be a better teacher.
She may be on medication for this, or may need it, but you may be
a very influential person in her life. Children do out grow this, if
this is shyness or selective mutism, so not to worry… you are not
responsible to “fix” it. Believe me, her teachers will have already
discussed this with her mother because they require that a child read aloud!
Bless you for being there. By the way, it is very common for such
children to be very intelligent, willing
to learn, and have special gifts…maybe music will be her gift and will
help lift her out of this. Don’t be surprised if she fails to follow through
on recitals. If she is too shy to play at a recital, perhaps you could allow
her to help serve punch or arrange chairs, give out programs, and you
could recognize her to the crowd for being such a helpful student? Your patience,
acceptance of her personhood, and kindness will be something she will treasure
and will never forget.
Pat Cooper, doctor of nursing

said: Oct 30, 2011
 145 posts

I have a 14 year old pupil who was a little similar he would never speak to me really. I actually wondered whether he might be autistic as he was very intelligent,always did what I asked but there was this silent awkwardness that I didn’t understand.Sometimes I’d ask him to do something he’d get quite angry and start really forcing his bow arm. I use to feel a little scared because this boy was very tall and big for his age. After a few lessons I realized he really responded to praise so I encouraged him and always made sure after every lesson I’d tell his mother how talented I thought he was, i also spoke a lot in lessons (without expecting replies )in a very animated and jovial way hoping that it would relax him, encouraging him to laugh as i thought that was another way to comunicate without actually speaking.Gradually our relationship improved and I do feel he likes me teaching him (sometimes I really thought the opposite) even now I find him very quiet still but he does talk more in his own quiet way.
I think sometimes we just have to take children as they are and adapt to them.
I think if you really do suspect there is a medical/psychological problem holding the student back then one does need to approach the parents.J
Best of luck- I’m sure this situation is very difficult for the teacher, I use to dread the lessons with this pupil but I don’t anymore. I hope it will be the same for you.

Barb said: Oct 30, 2011
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
678 posts

I had a young teen student for a few years who hardly peeped. When I asked a question there was always a loooong pause, and then maybe an “I don’t know” or sometimes she’d ask what I meant. She was very shy, and I thought at first she was just too shy to respond or was too afraid her answer would be wrong.

A year or two later (she seemed to be warming up to talking to me) she told me that she found that she learns best if things are written down. She has trouble following what teachers say. I can’t say I adapted very well to teaching that way, though I did try to make sure practice instructions were clearly written down, and not give too much in verbal instruction at one time. At the same time, she had a hard time reading music and depended on playing by ear a lot. ?? She was puzzled by that, too.

I had asked her at the outset (she was 13) if she knew what her best learning style was, and she said at that time that they had done little tests for that in school, but she could never figure it out. I also didn’t know for about a year that she was getting help at school. I think she took a very long time for auditory processing.

Maybe you could try some kind of game passing words back and forth to see if she is able to quickly make word associations or answer very easy questions. Can she be the leader in these kinds of activities?

If a verbal response is just too difficult, could you work out some non-verbal way for her to answer if she is stuck for words? Thumb up or down, a sheet of faces with different emotions?

I just saw a 60 Minutes clip featuring iPad Apps for autism—the ones who didn’t have any speech did have a lot locked inside them which some of these apps helped them to communicate.

I think one thing that would get my student to talk more was to ask her about her pets. Not that it helped with answering questions, but at least it got us chatting and I think helped her to warm up to me.

I now have a place to note any diagnosed or suspected learning differences on my student info page which the parent fills out, as well as “Anything else I should know about the student?”

I currently have a student whom I suspect has Asperger’s, which carries its own challenges. Everything is literal so he has trouble with figures of speech or jokes, if his eyes are on the music he doesn’t seem to hear me, coordination issues, a bit OCD, etc. But we’re getting there! His mom did not note anything on his info sheet, but I did bring it up once with his mother. We had just discovered someone in the family had it, and I saw a lot of similarities.

I hope you will figure out how to work with your student. One thing I like about teaching is learning to “unlock” each individual student.

Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
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Deanna said: Oct 30, 2011
Suzuki Association Member
90 posts

I once had a student with selective mutism. I don’t totally understand what that is, but from what the mom told me and info she sent to me it seems basically like she is physically and mentally capable of speech but couldn’t use it in new situations, with new people, or any time she had anxiety (which was a lot of the time). In those situations she would just look blank and it was like she was panicking inside, wanting to be able to speak but not being able to. Anyway eventually she did speak to me a bit in private lessons, but she would never talk at group lessons not even when I would be tuning her violin and just ask her how she was that day.

One thing that helped because speech had so much anxiety wrapped around it was just to ask her to show me the answer to my questions rather than speak it. This worked fairly well but it was still difficult to always gage how much she was absorbing and comprehending because it was so hard for her to verbally reflect it back to me.

Besides that student I have had several who won’t necessarily talk to answer a question. Most are just those quiet students who don’t really like talking. Some are afraid to give the wrong answer, some just seem to play dumb. I myself apparently didn’t talk to my violin teacher at all for the first 2 years or so. I don’t remember that being uncomfortable at all but I’m sure it was difficult for my teacher! (I was younger than 9 though).

Does your student respond when you say hi, or ask about their school, life, family etc?
With younger students who speak softly or are afraid to answer I sometimes cover my eyes and say I won’t peek while they answer. For some reason that often makes them more comfortable, and it’s a bit silly so it shifts the pressure of the attention off of them on to me.

Being that the student is new to you, and especially if she’s doing well with everything she might be just afraid of giving the wrong answer or not like the attention of being put on the spot. Maybe you could give her a little “talking” assignment under the guise of music history or something. For example: Assign her a composer to look up and report back to you with what period he’s from, what instrument he played, a famous piece he wrote etc. Something short like one or two sentences. Having a prepared answer might make her more confident in speaking to you.

Grace said: Oct 30, 2011
110 posts

I have a very shy student who didn’t talk at all for months until she started feeling more comfortable… I think only 6 lessons is still pretty early for a very shy student to feel comfortable with a new teacher. I also think it is pretty funny you posted earlier about a student who talks too much, and now you have a student who talks too little! :D

Lori Bolt said: Oct 31, 2011
Lori Bolt
Suzuki Association Member
San Clemente, CA
226 posts

Your patience and gentle encouragement in this situation will no doubt allow this student to eventually relax and speak more to you (barring any of the medical/psych issues mentioned). Maybe she just feels awkward speaking in front of her mom in the lesson scenario. This is a new experience for both of them, most likely.

If she is motivated by such things, maybe you could consider encouraging her answers to your questions with Gummy bears, pennies, etc. collected in a cup, or maybe your positive verbal response when she speaks will be all she needs! Good luck!

Lori Bolt

Carolina said: Nov 16, 2011
Carolina Borja Marroquin
Suzuki Association Member
Cello, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Bogotá, Colombia
5 posts

Once I had a student that my boss introduce to me as a boy with features of autism. I was worried on how to approach the lessons even when I haven´t started them. I also ask my mother(psicopedagogue) and read about it.

I started teaching him, he didn´t only answer or look at me whenever I asked. It was frustrating, but I decided I will go with easy solutions and never treated him as somebody different, with intelligence disorders or illnesses. I started to use sounds, I clapped my hands and fingers, say yujuuu!!! or guide his sight by placing my hand in front of him to catch his attention, everything with love and even with humor. Voilá!! “The problem” was gone after say six months of work. Later, I had normal conversations with him, we talked about school, music groups we like…anything.

I hope this advice helps you.

Connie Sunday said: Nov 30, 2011
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
667 posts

Hi Carolina: I teach children with autism, too, and I have two right now. One is on meds, and he’s lovely. The other one is more difficult and I had a difficult lesson yesterday. But he, also, is normally fine and is studying both violin and piano with me.

My young lady who was silent has become less silent and I think it’s more a matter of shyness than anything like autism.

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Diane said: Nov 30, 2011
Diane AllenViolin
245 posts

This is an interesting thread. I have 7 kids from 2 different families that specialize in not talking. I’ve taught them for a number of years too so time isn’t helping the situation. Some of my random thoughts about this are:

  • when I’m in exercise class and the teacher calls out “how are you doing”? I can barely grunt an answer! It’s not that I am physically out of breath—it is a mental block.
  • it’s stressful for these kids to talk, it’s stressful for me to ask questions and not get an answer—even if I ask what you ate for lunch! Sometimes it’s my turn to deal with the stress and sometimes it’s their turn.
  • I’m a Toastmaster and a violin teacher. I’ve always noticed that when I’m demonstrating for my students it’s never as good as when I’m practicing. When I practice I’m not talking to someone else. So I’ve been trying some of my speeches at Toastmasters to practice talking and playing and alternate the activities. It’s difficult and I haven’t cracked the code yet.
  • 2 years ago I told these families that they have to say “hello” and “good-bye” at each lesson.

Smiles of understanding! Diane

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Patricia Cooper said: Nov 30, 2011
 3 posts

Yes,selective Mutism is extreme shyness with social anxiety, but it is not autism,nor is it remotely related.

Dr. Pat Cooper, DNP, APRN, MSN, MHS 606-561-0151
1127 Log Haven Road
Monticello, Kentucky, 42633
Sent from my iPod

Carolina said: Nov 30, 2011
Carolina Borja Marroquin
Suzuki Association Member
Cello, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Bogotá, Colombia
5 posts

Hi Dallevln

Your thoughts are very interesting. Going away from children….I´m an international student pursuing a masters at OU and something that has been pretty shocking to me is that my classmates(under and grad) don´t answer to the teachers when they ask any kind of questions.The teachers usually have to ask twice or three times!

In my country, when you do that you are consider extremely rude! Should such behavior be related to technology?Is the learning path changing within generations? Is it something that is changing within the US culture? What could it be?

Patricia Cooper said: Nov 30, 2011
 3 posts

I have found college students to be vey competitive and fearful of making a mistake and even being teased. The verbal student is viewed negatively and is shunned,so to speak.

Dr. Pat Cooper, DNP, APRN, MSN, MHS

Sue Hunt said: Dec 3, 2011
Sue Hunt
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
390 posts

Nobody has mentioned the reward of your undivided attention for replying. Just noticing and approving is often enough. The consequence of not answering is to be ignored. Consistency gives a safe message to an nervous child.

Sometimes a anxious parent can leap in before the child has a chance to think about replying. I once had a transfer student with such a mum. I had a lot of difficulty in getting her to sit quietly while waiting for him to reply to simple Yes/no questions. Eventually, we cracked it. He arrived at a lesson, very keen to show me something that they had been working on. At least, that is what his mum reported. I told them that he could have my full attention when he told me that he was ready show me. Nothing happened, so I wandered round the room pretending to tidy things. He took ages to realise that I meant what I said, but I stuck to it and eventually, he replied, “Ready!” After only few more interruptions from mum, it has been plain sailing since. Music in Practice

Ruth Brons said: Dec 3, 2011
Ruth Brons
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Livingston, NJ
148 posts

On the plus side, I like to think about lessons with my non-talkers as “all business”—great opportunities to get more work done! I have often noted greater progress with my “silent types” than with my “chatters”. One student in particular, who I don’t believe said a word to me for several years, is now a lovely,well-spoken young man headed to an Ivy League school, with a nice group of friends, and 10 books of polished repertoire behind him.

Best Wishes,

Ruth Brons

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