Ongoing challenges with behavior

Trish said: Sep 15, 2016
Trish Clair (Horrocks)
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Nanaimo, BC
25 posts

Help! I’m at my wit’s end with a very challenging student that has been with me for 3 years and I desperately need some insight and suggestions!

The student is now 6, and started lessons with me as a 3-year old. He has two older siblings who are also in my studio.He has not yet managed to play more than one Twinkle (Everybody Down Up). In honesty, he has actually never played that variation correct either (he always forgets one of the slices of cheese). I’ve tried short several pieces from “Fox With Dirty Socks” and it just hasn’t worked.

I have dismissed this child from lessons about 10 times in the last 2 years because he either refused to do as I asked of him or he persisted to pretend he didn’t understand basic concepts that he has already mastered. For instance, yesterday he insisted that he did not know which shoulder to put his violin on, and tried to play a Twinkle with the violin (held by his left hand) sitting on his right shoulder. When he behaves this way I sit quietly and ask him to let me know when he is ready to do as I ask, and I don’t raise my voice (which isn’t my style anyway). If he still won’t cooperate after I ask twice, the lesson is over.

A bit of back story: when he has a bad lesson, he is punished by NOT GETTING A BAG OF CANDY. When he has a good lesson he is rewarded with a trip to Dairy Queen for a sundae. I had to speak with the parent last year because she was in the habit of twisting the child’s ear or pulling his hair if he didn’t listen to me! Talk about uncomfortable …. telling an adult that I can’t have that kind of behavior in my home.

Last week at his first lesson, I had him (and his Mom) sign a contract with me that outlines the “rules of respect”, hoping it would help. But yesterday’s lesson was a complete disaster.

I know in my heart that every child learns at their own pace, but I feel like this is a situation where the child is deeply manipulative, the family is quite dysfunctional, and I don’t feel there is any hope of success.

How do I dismiss one child from a family of three from my studio? Does anyone have other ideas for a solution to this situation?

MaryLou Roberts said: Sep 16, 2016
MaryLou RobertsTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Guitar
Ann Arbor, MI
244 posts

Wow, sounds frustrating…..it is good that you are looking for answers, because this isn’t good for you, the parent, or the child.
Consider investigating how the practice is at home, with all the details. You need to know in order to help raise the ability of each student. You can ask things like; what time of day do practices go the best, How many things from the list were easy to do at home, which ones were more difficult, etc.
Ask the parent to skip the candy reward all together, it is creating pressure. Offer a (one) piece of candy for good lesson behavior at the most. Rewards that are too big have already lost their effectiveness.
This student could be the best training you have ever had, take it full on as a challenge!
I suggest that you read “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen…” by Faber and Mazlich, and let the parent see some of the parts….chances are she is at her wits end a lot, too.
Follow up every week on the lesson assignment. Boys need to learn their place with regard to respect and limits are a good thing……more on this is in “Boys and Girls Learn Differently” by Michael Gurian.
You can post progress/further challenges if you want, so happy exploring solutions!

Jessica said: Sep 16, 2016
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Hyrum, UT
1 posts

This child may have a personality where their agency is very strong. And if they feel like they have no say or are being forced they will do everything you describe. Is he being forced so much he will do all to get out? Or a different instrument he is more interested in and the parents are just making him. ( my husbands mom did that to him and it barred him from learning). Their is something he is trying to communicate. Ask him.

JW

Amy said: Sep 17, 2016
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
50 posts

Challenges are, well…challenging! Good for you for trying to find a healthy way of facing the challenge. In general, I appreciate all of the comments offered so far, but would like to offer another perspective about the notion of offering one piece of candy for a good lesson:
Dr. Suzuki was a huge advocate of breaking challenges into chunks small enough that the child can succeed. If a whole lesson is too large of a chunk, break it down. Offer the child one m&m or skittle for staying focused enough to do something well 3 times. If he’s really focused, by the end of the lesson, he will have eaten 10 m&ms. On the other hand, if he insists on being silly and not accomplishing anything, he may earn 0-1 m&ms. When he is consistently able to earn several m&ms in a single lesson, you might try mixing up the numbers for how many times he has to do something well to get an m&m.
That’s what immediately comes to mind on how to break an overwhelming lesson (for everybody!) into a manageable chunk. If you come up with other ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Gabriel Solomon said: Sep 17, 2016
Gabriel Solomon
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Woburn, MA
4 posts

Whew! What a case. I admire you for sticking with it this long.

The problem here is the mother/parents/family situation. The “parenting” is clearly where the manipulation is coming from. What chance would a child have in such a scenario to learn cooperation? This child has zero agency and therefore nothing to lose. He is trying to manipulate you and the lesson because that is the only thing he’s been taught to do. As Suzuki said, man is the son of his environment.

The third child often gets far less attention, especially if the first two are a lot to manage inside the family. He is clearly trying to get attention the only way he knows how. Unfortunately, that means negative attention. If we know that the child knows what shoulder to put the violin on, we need to ask what he’s trying to communicate by the behaviour of putting it on the wrong shoulder. As Jessica said, he’s trying to tell us something, and I think what he’s saying is that he’s tired of being manipulated. This may have nothing to do with his feelings about the violin. He just wants to decide something, anything, about his own fate for himself.

I don’t think you have a chance of getting this child what he needs unless you gain the full cooperation of the parents, and they accept your leadership. Of course, no one likes to be told how to raise their children, so you will need to couch all of this in terms of violin success. That’s fine, as Suzuki’s purpose was to create fine humans through violin study, and that’s exactly what you are doing.

If you are able (and you have the strong desire and stamina) to go forward with this teaching relationship, you need to set out for yourself on paper the conditions under which you will do so. These are not pedagogical, but rather basic parenting. As MaryLou sugggested, “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen…” is an excellent place to start. The mom needs to read it too. She may have no control over her own children or anything in her own life. Giving your student some degree of agency over something is the best way to gain his trust. Anything would do. What side would you like to put the violin on today? Red M&M or green? And then really do what he says no matter how idiotic (so be careful what you are asking him to choose.) And obviously, the mom has to recognize your total authority and control of the lesson and violin study overall. Maybe just tell her to take a vacation for a few months while you rebuild a new relationship with the child. For that matter, you might ask her not to practice with him at all, as its clearly pointless or worse.

Next, you have to decide that if the family won’t go along with these conditions, or agree to a plan to work towards them with a set end date, that you will have to stop lessons for this child. I don’t think anything else will work.

As far as the other two kids, I would leave them out of this conversation, even though any benefit from the third child’s lessons is likely to flow to the other two. Their needs are clearly not as great as those of the third child.

Gabriel Solomon
Suzuki Violin Teacher

Gabriel Solomon said: Sep 17, 2016
Gabriel Solomon
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Woburn, MA
4 posts

Another thing to consider is that if you are seeing physical abuse in the lesson, that’s a strong indication that there could be much more serious abuse going on in the home. This family may need professional help far beyond the scope of violin lessons.

Gabriel Solomon
Suzuki Violin Teacher

Christiane said: Sep 18, 2016
Christiane Pors-Sadoff
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
New York, NY
47 posts

Hi!
This does sound like an almost irreparable situation as the behavior has gone on for a few years already. But if they want to continue him anyway and you’re willing to, then make sure food is taken off the table altogether. External rewards are not that satisfying anyway. It needs to be reward directly related to the violin lesson itself. Are there other non violinistic activities that the child enjoys that you can have him cooperate with during the lesson? Once I had to resort to just playing catch and throwing a soft bean bag ball and scoring points as a lesson. If the child could follow my rules: 10 successful catches, then we would do one fun violin activity (like a pre twinkle game he liked) in the middle, then return to ball playing. I made sure I would praise his good ball playing skills when he succeeded.

The problem here is that the parents have dominated his spirit in a very cheap, desperate and cruel way, and you literally have to put the ball back in his court in order to win him over. This may or may not work for you and your situation, but might be worth a try. The child will feel that you are really truly respecting him, and may turn around and surprise you on the violin. I hope you either have success with him or end up getting him off your schedule.

Christiane Pors
Violinist
Mikomi Violin Studio
Kaufman Music Center
NYU Steinhardt

Edmund Sprunger said: Sep 18, 2016
Edmund SprungerTeacher Trainer
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Saint Louis, MO
99 posts

This sounds like an amazingly difficult situation. It’s probably too big for a violin lesson. But, who knows if they’re ever going to get the therapy they need? You may be their only influence. Not that you’re going to do therapy—you’re not—but you can provide a huge plus for the child AND THE PARENT by being someone who attempts to understand rather than punish. If the boy can find enough people like you in the world, he can someday seek out the help he needs. You can give him hope that an alternate world exists to the one in his mind and his relationship with his parent.

In that previous paragraph, I put AND THE PARENT in all caps not because I wanted to yell, but because I wanted to emphasize that the parent is the key component in this. I hope that I would be trying to understand what is going on for the parent in this situation. For starters, why does the parent think she has to resort to a bag of candy…or NO bag of candy? What does it say about her understanding of learning, or her own personal experiences with learning? Does she think learning is something that a child—or at least her boy—has to be coerced into participating in…or punished for not participating? Does she feel so weak and ineffective as a person/parent that she has to resort to bribes and punishments? There’s a lot going on there. The challenge is finding out what’s going on. From a quick glance, she sounds desperate. You may find it’s helpful to approach her as someone who is desperately doing the best she can with limited internal resources.

And I want to also add that this is yet another reason why I think that starting formal lessons at age three—especially boys—is counterproductive UNLESS that child has been in Suzuki ECE. There is just way too much going on developmentally for a three year old to add the challenges of playing violin and taking lessons and practicing. My concern is that children who begin too soon integrate these conflicts and confusions into their personalities and their sense of who they are and who the world is.

Edmund Sprunger
sprungerstudio.com
yespublishing.com

Trish said: Sep 18, 2016
Trish Clair (Horrocks)
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Nanaimo, BC
25 posts

I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of you for your thoughtful responses on this. Until I put it down in writing, I don’t think I had truly acknowledged how much the situation with this child was affecting me …. and I’m now also feeling a lot more insight into how our lessons affect this child.

Something ironic: the mother is an early childhood educator in the public school system. Despite the fact that she works with young children all day, I don’t actually feel that I can “safely” have the conversation I need to have with her.

My gut feeling now, after a lot of thought and after considering all your feedback, is that I will make September his final month in my studio if the next two weeks’ lessons don’t go well. On one hand I would really love to find a way to forge a bond and help this boy develop a greater sense of self-worth. But on the other hand I think that any positive change I can effect will be undone by the unfortunate family dynamic. I don’t want any of this to affect my relationship with other students, and already (only two weeks’ in to the year), I feel a sense of dread when I wake up on his lesson day. That’s not fair to the other families who come for lessons on that day.

You must log in to post comments.

A note about the discussion forum: Public discussion forum posts are viewable by anyone. Anyone can read the forums, but you must create an account with your email address to post. Private forums are viewable by anyone that is a part of that private forum's group. Discussion forum posts are the opinion of the poster and do not constitute endorsement by or official position of the Suzuki Association of the Americas, Inc.

Please do not use the discussion forums to advertise products or services