Crying students (long!)

Shanna said: Nov 17, 2013
 1 posts

I have been teaching violin for about 4 years, and recently gotten my Suzuki teacher training/certification. Before that, I had taught the same way I taught at five: H. Practical Method/Kayser, no finger tapes, no parents in the lesson, etc. With the training came tons of hours of observations, leading group classes, etc. After taking teacher training, I teach both Suzuki/traditional (not at once :)). So far, I have had great Suzuki students with a few notable exceptions which are driving me crazy. One of my students is a 9 year old girl of a family friend. This might be problem #1, since she is a family friend, she doesn’t need to respect me? Not sure. We have half an hour lessons once a week, in my home.

And, this might be problem #2—I have a staircase in my house that is apparently really fun for kids to play on (though we tell them not to) and a cat, who stays out of the way. We have been using my house because it is the most convenient thing for both of us. I could go to their house, but it’s far, and the parents do not pay me regularly, if at all. We did discuss payment, late fees, etc and agreed on it, but they always "forget" or toss me a couple ones. Again, probably because I am a family friend. I have never had other parents do this to me. I haven’t been very strong about this, so it’s my fault, but not the biggest problem here. I am looking for somewhere else to teach but haven’t found anything that works for our schedules.

Our lessons have been going well until recently. She is working her way to playing Twinkle theme with fingers. She is doing great at rhythms and all of the variations up until the theme. We have had a lot of fun with our lessons, making up songs to sing and silly games for bowing, etc (might be my problem #3—we were so silly and had so much fun in the beginning that now that it’s time to focus she refuses to?).

The weird new stuff:

  1. She won’t bow at the beginning/ends of lessons. I thought it was tacky at first but it really does set the stage for the lesson, it’s time to be serious! I say, “I am ready to teach you,” and she just nods her head while looking around for something to play with, or completely ignores me. At ends of lessons, she won’t bow and thank me as we used to, and will even leave without saying goodbye or looking at me at all. In fact, when I say this at beginnings of lessons, the sweet little girl goes away and it’s time to stare at the walls, pout, or scowl at me.

  2. When I ask her to stand up and play with me (we sit to take her instrument out of the case) she refuses to stand up. “I don’t waaaaant to staaaaaaand.” Her face crinkles, and she starts crying. At first, I said okay, let’s sit and sing the finger numbers to the Theme, but she does this at every lesson now. I need her to stand so we can work on her posture, and I’ve told both her and her parents this. They don’t bring her foot mat, and mentioned they let her sit while she practices. Of course, the parents say, “Awww she must be sooo tirrred.” She’s 9, completely able-bodied, and our lessons are short. She can stand. I feel like I am torturing her (she is so able-bodied, in fact, that she uses my stairs as monkey bars).

    1. When she does stand and we start to work (after some games, singing), she won’t listen. She won’t even look at me, but will look at the ceiling or out the window, body completely skewed. If I try to correct her, she will drop her violin and lay down. We are working on fingers (the lift-tap thing) and she will just play random things, make terrible noises. I ask her to stop playing while I’m trying to show her something/talk, she cries. She also lets go of the violin completely so I have to catch it before it falls. Her parents say nothing. I am tempted to let her violin fall onto my carpet the next time she decides to just let go of it so she can see what will happen (terrible?). She’s already dropped it once, purposely and it survived…. ;)

    2. Her parents say she is “bored” at home practicing, so they let her play anything she wants and try to figure out later repertoire. We hadn’t even learned how to use the 2nd finger yet, and her parents told me she had figured out how to play the Twinkle theme using the finger numbers song. Her LH thumb is bent insanely and in the wrong position, and her fingers are in even worse shape. When I try to correct this (pointing out good things first, of course), she stares into space like I don’t exist at all, and when I try to get her attention, she cried. It’s obvious the parents let her do this over and over so that she’s taught herself this way, but now it will take more time to unlearn. I can see why she’s frustrated, but I can’t let her go on if her left hand looks like a claw.

For instance, today we worked on the first part of the Twinkle theme. I didn’t go on to the middle section, as her LH was in a terrible position and I wanted to help correct that. She started crying and screamed, “I DON’T WANT TO STOP THERE, I WANT TO LEARN THE WHOLE THIIIIIIINGGGG!!!!!” I told her that we needed to get her hand set up properly to make a beautiful sound/not cause injuries, etc.

  1. Her parents don’t take notes during lessons, and don’t keep a practice log, though we’ve talked about it and I’ve provided them with one. When I asked my student about her practice chart, she asked me what that was. Yikes.

It’s gotten to the point where we can’t even do a half an hour lesson. Today, I think we got about 10 minutes of the lesson, with her staring into space the whole time before she started crying and we called it quits. Otherwise, she will sit or lay on the floor and refuse to participate in anything. So, I’ve let the lessons end there. The only thing though, her parents don’t leave my house for awhile after the lesson, since they’re family friends. I need to talk to them about this. Once she tantrums and the lesson is over, it is now playtime with the cat, stairs, etc. I feel like they should leave the second the lesson is over so she is not rewarded. (I need another place to teach!)

I guess I’m just wanting to know what to do when kids cry over every little thing you ask them. I am fun, friendly and polite and not asking too much. She cried today when I suggested we review Variation A together—NOT torture. I do know about the Million Dollar Lesson but haven’t pulled that out yet, though the parents said they’d be okay with it.

What do you do/say when they cry? Would you tolerate this? I try to pause and be silent for a second and it feels like that helps, they’re not getting a reaction. But I don’t know what to do. Changing the lesson plan rewards them, and if they cry in the first 30 seconds of instruction, what are you supposed to do then? Especially if they want to learn things fast or they’re “bored”?

The weird thing, she is always very happy to see me and the second the lessons are done she is her happy self again. I feel like parents being there doesn’t help. My mom is a dental assistant and mentioned that kids in the chair only cry when parents are around, even when she isn’t even doing anything to their mouths, and that’s been my experience with teaching traditionally. My friends that teach traditional also said get rid of the parents, but I can’t since that’s a big Suzuki thing. Kids have NEVER been this horrible until their parents stepped in to watch them. My other Suzuki students’ parents take notes and are more involved, but it doesn’t seem to matter if her parents are here or not.

I’ve asked her if she likes violin and wants to learn, and she always says yes and that she likes lessons and me. I’m wondering if I should refer her to a teacher who will be more strict, who they don’t already know. I’m not getting paid anyway and honestly, she is driving me crazy. Either that, or have them observe another student’s lesson so she can see how they act? I do not have a group class because I don’t have a good space, but that would help too, I’m sure.

Sorry this is so long, but thanks for any advice that you have!

Katherine said: Nov 18, 2013
Suzuki Association Member
75 posts

I have not experienced anything that extreme. However, I have tried teaching the child of a friend (at a discount) and it didn’t end particularly well. I don’t think I will offer friends discounts, etc in the future for this reason. In my situation, the mother and I did not have agreement on goals/some very basic elements of instruction. I persevered for over a year b/c of our friendship however, it almost ruined a friendship. Eventually I clarified my expectations, which resulted in their quitting (which was really the best thing—they moved to a teacher who does not require participation in group lessons or performances).

I also have a 9-yr old student who cries occasionally. However, it is out of frustration as she is easily stressed (an issue beyond just violin lessons) and often tired due to many activities, and I have had a hard time finding how much to challenge her, before she becomes overwhelmed. In her case, if she cries, we take a bit of a break, or end the lesson (it is usually at the end anyway) and I express understanding about her feelings. In her case, the crying is not manipulative, or not done b/c she dislikes learning to play, I am not sure about your student’s crying!

To me it sounds like this child is not ready for violin lessons. I would not be able to tolerate that level of disrespect and lack of interest in learning. Refusing to stand up is not acceptable, and I agree on ending the lesson if that is happening. I agree that with no consequences for her actions (and even “reward”—getting to play afterwards), it is less likely she will have motivation to change. I would think it is time for the million dollar lesson, although she seems a bit old for that.

How do the parents behave during the lesson? I find that parents who intervene/ speak during the lesson do more harm than help, and can undermine the teacher’s authority, or confuse the child. I do find that occasionally kids do better (with focus, etc) with the parent in the next room rather than in the room during the lesson. After a few lessons in that manner we have moved the parent back into the room and things worked better.

I agree that a group could moderate her behavior, and motivate her. Could you get 2-3 students together at a time who would be interested in a group lesson, perhaps once a month?

If there are other teachers in your area, perhaps referring them is the best course of action (speaking from my limited experience!).

Best wishes on resolving this!

Connie Sunday said: Nov 18, 2013
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
667 posts

If you want to be respected you need to treat it like a business. You’ve worked hard for your training and should not give a single lesson without being paid. Lots of teachers on here have good lesson policies. Here’s mine:

See the pdf link to a hard copy. Every new parent has to review and sign this, and I make them a copy of the signed document for their records. It saves a lot of aggravation down the line.

Free Handouts for Music Teachers & Students:

Kirsten said: Nov 18, 2013
103 posts

Hi Shanna,

This is an interesting, and sad, story. I agree with Connie that you need to have a business (professional) relationship with the parent of every student you teach. It would be unusual for a parent to bring a student to lesson after lesson if they were paying something between $50 and $70 per hour to watch the child cry and pitch fits.
I suppose it would not be impossible, but it would be unusual. At some point early in the game the parent would think of many more pleasurable ways to spend her money, and you would loose this student, even if you were inclined to be nice and try to work things out.

I think from a philosophy standpoint, this child does seem to be raised in home environment where very immature behaviour is actively encouraged. I think when a 6 year old cries or acts defiant in the lesson, you can work with the parent to seek solutions. This can be done with private conversations on the phone away from the child, helpful books, help from other teachers. When a 9 year old has these problems, it seems to me to be beyond the scope of a music teacher to help work them out.


Irene said: Nov 20, 2013
Irene YeongViolin
160 posts

family friend is not a good idea. maybe you can end the relationship ?

Alexandra said: Nov 20, 2013
Alexandra Jacques
Suzuki Association Member
Mesa, AZ
35 posts

I agree with Kirsten- this child’s behavior is very immature for a 9 year old. If it were my student, I’m not sure if I would want to continue teaching her, since it seems like either she is not mature enough for lessons, or violin lessons are not a good fit for her, and that’s why she is acting out. I can understand that you could be in an awkward position since they are family friends, though. Perhaps you can suggest that they try lessons with another teacher to see if she is more respectful to someone that is not a family friend? That could be a reason that she isn’t taking lessons more seriously.

One trend I’ve noticed among parents of students is that when the parents are unreliable when it comes to payments, showing up on time or at all to lessons, etc., it shows in the child’s behavior. When the parents are unreliable, they aren’t placing a very high level of importance on lessons, and their child sees that whether the parents realize it or not. Almost every time I have had a parent who is unreliable in some way, the child is also poorly behaved, doesn’t take lessons seriously, or doesn’t progress as quickly as they should because they are not practicing. So, while you say that her parents’ not paying you is not the biggest problem, I think this problem and the child’s behavior go together.

If you feel comfortable enough talking to the parents privately, I would revisit your payment policy, and possible solutions for their daughter’s behavior. However, if you’d rather not risk ruining the friendship, you should consider referring them to a different teacher, telling them that their daughter will be more successful learning from someone that is not a family friend. The parents and the child aren’t respecting you and your time, and you could be using this time for a student that will behave and parents that will pay you for the work you’re doing.

Amanda Hockenberger said: Nov 22, 2013
Amanda Hockenberger
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Marlton, NJ
10 posts

Wow, that sounds like an unpleasant lesson situation! If I were you, I would talk to the parents about finding another lesson situation for their daughter. You don’t have to be unkind about it. I would say, “I’m sure you’ve noticed that violin lessons aren’t going very well. Perhaps our lesson situation isn’t the best fit for your daughter. I think it would be a good idea for you to find another teacher for her that would be a better fit.”

Best wishes! It is always frustrating to deal with difficult students and their parents. . . especially when it is the child of a friend!

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