Special needs student

Amy said: Jun 13, 2013
Suzuki Association Member
50 posts

One of my students has a 4-yr-old sister who has had 2 lessons with me. I knew she would be a challenge, but I didn’t realize that she isn’t developing normally. Having worked with her twice, my gut is screaming that she suffers from mild to moderate hearing loss, because she can’t associate letters with sounds (even though her dad says they have sung the alphabet song every night for years), does not follow directions well (although for the most part, this does not seem to spring from intentional defiance), and doesn’t socialize well, although she is not autistic.

So, my twofold question is: 1) How do I sensitively broach the subject with the parents, and are there other potential issues I should encourage them to explore? 2) Do you have any tips on how to create a positive environment for a special needs child when you have no idea what the special need is?

I don’t know if the parents are aware of her issues, but in denial; if they are too close to notice that something is really not right; of if they are desperately aware that something is wrong, but afraid to talk about it.

G said: Jun 14, 2013
G Ordun
Suzuki Association Member
Vienna, VA
21 posts



I suggest that you NOT broach the subject of your diagnosis. Discussion of medical issues is the job of medical professionals.

I consider it my job to help my students have fun with music; and, hopefully, teach them ways that they can accomplish their own goals. Always hoping that beautiful music is or becomes one of those goals.

The discussion you might want to have with the parents is whether this child is ready to pursue talent education with you. There is no such thing as a magic age at which all children are prepared to focus on what we have to offer.


A positive environment is created in the same way for all children: With Love. With Patience. With Games. With your personal creativity as it responds to this particular child.

Would you consider taking a more tactile or visual approach? A lap harp or mini-xylophone (thinking cheap Orff style here) might be helpful and give the student other ways to access pitches. Ooo! how about four tuning forks? One for each string? (Hmmmm, it must be time to stop. This is starting to sound a bit silly ;-)


Aileen said: Jun 14, 2013
Aileen Rohwer
Suzuki Association Member
2 posts

I agree with Geordun, any type of diagnosis belongs with the medical professionals. What you are describing actually sounds like typical 4 year old behavior though, especially with a 4 year old who may not have had any type of formalized preschool or relationship with a teacher. The concept of matching letters to sounds is also a difficult one at that age and expecting it to click after 2 lessons seems like a pretty high expectation.

You mentioned this student is the sister of one of your other students. Did she have the chance to observe the older student’s lessons for a period of time prior to signing up for lessons with you?

To answer your questions, there is no need to bring up the subject with the parents unless you want to recommend that she go through a period of observing lessons prior to starting one on one lessons with you. Encouraging them to continue to have music playing in the house and in the car will help that child learn the tunes even if it is just the rhythm.

Working on rhythm exercises, playing games, singing songs, keeping the tasks in lessons short and sweet (within 5 minutes) will allow both of you to feel like you are accomplishing something in lesson. Some children this age have a lot of trouble focusing for longer than 5 minutes.

Elise Winters said: Jun 14, 2013
Elise Winters
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Austin, TX
37 posts

There may be a few explanations for what you are observing, other than developmental delays and the like:

On the phonetic side of things, there is a school of thought that says that students really should be taught the SOUNDS of letters in the beginning (”ssss”) rather than their names (”ess”). Many, many children have difficulty extracting the needed sound even on easy letters … leaving aside obvious problems like “gee” and “eitch” (breaking the mold as the “guh” and “huh” sounds, respectively).

(I’m not suggesting you share this with the parents … just food for thought.)

At age 4, the model for “teacher-student relationship” is still being developed; a child’s natural way of relating to the teacher otherwise is a new person to play with them!

Some good options would seem to be:
(1) Find short, simple games & approachable activities that are at her level … regardless whether this level is benchmarked to a typical child her age;

(2) Or, delay music lessons until the child has a stronger model of the teacher-student relationship. It’s more efficient for them to learn these roles in a group setting (or via observation) rather than in (more expensive) private lessons that are intended to be learning violin.

(3) Or, combine the two goals into one by referring the student to classes such as Music Together, or Suzuki Early Childhood Music, or Kindermusik. These classes are specifically designed to prepare the child for more individual / in-depth music instruction, both socially and essential musical skills. This honors the parents’ desire to begin music study, but in a way that better meets her needs.

If you’re not familiar with Suzuki Early Childhood, here is an example: http://robertsonstringstudio.com/suzuki-early-childhood-education-class/

Christine said: Jun 14, 2013
Christine Derby-CuadradoGuitar
Lockport, NY
1 posts

I agree not to share your thoughts on this with the parents unless they ask you. Was something discussed, since it was mentioned the 4 yr. old did not have autism? I had a similar situation and the child was diagnosed with Perception (also known as Sensory) Integration Disorder. I would suggest reading the book, “The Out Of Sync Child” by Carol Kranowitz and Lucy Jane Miller and see if that helps.

Barb said: Jun 15, 2013
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
678 posts

In school, if a teacher notices some possible disability they don’t leave it up to the parents to figure it out. They refer the student to a specialist in the school who then may refer the child for testing. Why wouldn’t we approach the parents if we suspect a hearing loss? Of course we can’t diagnose, but we might ask if the child has had their hearing screened, or if the parent ever suspected the child might have some hearing loss.

However, I agree that not getting letter-sound associations or following directions or socialize well isn’t necessarily a hearing problem, especially at four. I think children’s abilities and maturity at this age vary widely, and agree with Geordun that there is no magic age at which they are ready, and that is probably more the question for you.

I have had a student who did not get some things as quickly as some of my younger beginners, and suspected some learning issues, but in that case there was no need for me to bring it up as the student was already in school and I was confident that if there were indeed disabilities they would be noted there. The only way it affected our lessons was that he was moving at a different pace than some other students. In other words, it was not an issue. As it turned out the parent asked me for my “unprofessional” opinion on some things based on my experience, and I learned that he was already getting some special services at school. I encouraged the mom to keep me filled in on what she discovers about the way he learns.

Lots of good answers for the second question here, but I also have had the thought that since as Suzuki teachers we are encouraged to welcome special needs kids as students as “Every Child Can,” it would be nice to have more resources on how to teach some of these children. Another teacher I was talking with recently who has been teaching for years mentioned that there seem to be more kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders these days.

Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
Studio Helper—for entire music studios or schools

Carrie said: Jun 16, 2013
Suzuki Association Member
58 posts

Leena Crothers has written an article on Teaching Special Needs Children. It was in ASJ 24.4, but I think it’s too old to be on the website. She teaches a leading doctor (psychologist maybe?) for children with Autism and has gathered some helpful information from him.


Barb said: Jun 19, 2013
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
678 posts

Hi Carrie,
I found 24.4 (96) on the website, but none of the articles are available online, and there were no other articles tagged “special needs”. Thanks anyway!

Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
Studio Helper—for entire music studios or schools

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