Complaints in lesson

Sara said: Sep 24, 2009
 Violin
191 posts

How do you all handle when a student is a constant complainer in lessons?

“What is man’s ultimate direction in life? It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty.” Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Laura said: Sep 24, 2009
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

I already wrote a dissertation in the General forum about this same topic :) But I’d like to add in summary:

There are two types of approaches.

  1. You can burst their bubble, so to speak. Be firm and direct enough (but still kind of course) to let them know in no uncertain terms that you’re onto them, that you don’t appreciate it, that you won’t accept this during lessons, etc. etc.
  2. You can reach further into their world, trying to understand them better and then going along with it.

Depends on the student. Most behaviorally-challenged students need more #1. Most overly-sensitive and emotionally fragile students need #1. Many need some sort of combination.

Try to find out, do they complain because they are plain rude? Or do they have, in their own minds at least, legitimate reasons to be complaining? (I don’t mean complaints about you as a teacher, I mean real hang-ups and fears over learning or the work of practice.)

Sara said: Sep 25, 2009
 Violin
191 posts

I would say it is a complaint due to behavior, not fear. But I am getting to a point where I don’t want to teach this student. I don’t like to feel that way with any students, but I can’t seem to get a handle on this particular situation and am feeling desperate to find a way to get to him, for his sake yes, but for my sanity too!
So far every tactic I have tried has just fed it more. I haven’t exactly been down right firm about it not happening. Mostly we have just talked about why the complaints are there. Does he really want to learn, what about such and such does he not like, etc. He can’t really give me a solid answer (maybe because Mom is right there and it’s hard to be totally honest with Mom sitting right there)
After a student is told not to complain in lessons, that you as the teacher won’t allow it, is there anything you do to enforce it short of simply ending the lesson for that day?

“What is man’s ultimate direction in life? It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty.” Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Laura said: Sep 25, 2009
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

Well, with a few of the students I have, they would like nothing better than for the lesson to end as soon as it has started. So the “million dollar lesson” isn’t effective in such situations.

Rather, I make it really clear that we are here together, right now, for this lesson, and we can either choose to make the best of it, or one or both of us will be miserable. And regardless of how the time is spent, we are still spending the time.

It’s most likely that an 11-year old with behavior problems has never had any clear boundaries set for him, he has not been expected to respect them, or there has not been an effective system of expectations/consequences such that he learns how to respect these boundaries.

As teachers, we can’t expect to change 11 years of this in a 30min. music lesson. But what we can do is establish what happens in our time and our space. That’s why it’s very important to state very clearly, firmly, and simply exactly what is not allowed or what you will not tolerate. Use a serious, “I mean it” tone of voice with direct eye contact. Don’t bother trying to be too nice, polite or cute while laying down such ground rules. (I’ve tried this and it doesn’t work!)

He probably can’t give you a solid answer about his behavior because he so used to it, and not only does he not care to acknowledge what he is doing wrong, but he is resentful of the fact that you seem to think he’s doing something wrong. Inside, he’s rolling his eyes at you.

(Sorry, I really don’t mean to be so presumptuous… but I have students like this! I doubt they are the only ones.)

In that case, it’s futile to continue in the same relational manner that you likely use with all of your other, more respectful and cooperative students. He doesn’t relate to others like your other students do, so you can’t treat him the same way. Really, a student like this needs boot camp, figuratively speaking. You have to command his respect before you can reach out and influence him. Either that, or you have to be willing to learn his language (what registers with him, in other words) to earn his respect.

Once, I resorted to using toilet language while illustrating a teaching point! (I’ll leave that up to your imagination as a reader.) Firstly to get a student’s attention (I was instantly more “cool” in his books for that moment), and secondly to establish a point of connection. Boy did it work! And fortuntately I didn’t ever have to use such language again—I’m not sure I care to.

I don’t mean that you have to resort to yelling, insulting, punishing, or being rude. I only mean that in your best music-teacher manner, you have to become the firm person that he needs. You don’t have to be like that all of the time, only enough times that he knows who is dealing with and where the line is that he shouldn’t cross.

It’s possible that complely overhauling your relational manner with this one student isn’t within your comfort zone. It’s really beyond the call of duty, and I wouldn’t feel guilty if you don’t care to make the effort. I only know that if I want to improve things with a student like this, then this is what it takes. If not, then I am perfectly happy to let such a student go and just chalk it up as a bad match. (I’ve had both situations. It’s the age-old question of whether or not you’re williing to bend over backwards to be the best teacher you can be to ANY student, or if you want only students that you prefer to work with. Most of us fall somewhere inbetween, for any number of perfectly valid reasons.)

Sara said: Sep 26, 2009
 Violin
191 posts

Thanks, Purple tulips. Well said. You hit it about right with him. I think I will just have to learn to be firm.

“What is man’s ultimate direction in life? It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty.” Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Lynn said: Sep 26, 2009
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
173 posts

If this boy is 11, he is certainly old enough to both exercise self-discipline and understand and take responsibility for how his behavior affects other people. It sounds as if you have established to your satisfaction that his complaining is a behavior, and not based in anything “legit” that you and he can address together.
If that is the case, then:

Step 1: tell him how his complaining and negativity affects you. If his experience of you is that you are kind, patient, understanding, encouraging, etc, it’s quite likely that he has never even considered the possibility that you are finding it harder and harder to be enthusiastic about his lesson when you know that he’s just going to grump and complain. Preface this with a statement of the attitude, enthusiasm and commitment that you bring to each lesson, and about all the positive assumptions you make about him and his abilities. By and large, people of any age do not like to lose something that they have. What you what this boy to hear is that he has cannot take you and positive regard and commitment for granted, and that if he continues with his behavior, he stands a chance of losing both.

You can be kind, concerned, supportive, and caring, and at the same time require that the behavior end. It’s a violin lesson, not a therapy session, after all, so digging into the reasons behind the behavior is of limited value. While you do have some capacity to be responsive to a student emotional state and their needs, they are there for a violin lesson, and can be expected to (learn to) conduct themselves appropriately. Having tough feelings and still behaving -or at least attempting to behave—in a manner appropriate to the situation is called coping!

Step 2: Let him know that you certainly want to hear about what is difficult or frustrating, so that you can work on it together, but he only has X number of complaints per lesson. You must be very specific about what constitutes a complaint—specific as in if I were to read your description and then observe a lesson, I would be able to accurately distinguish complaints from non-complaints, and you and I would be identifying the same behaviors. You don’t want to take the complaints down to zero—that may be to big of a step. Figure the number of complaints that will require that he start to exercise some self-management, but will also allow him to be successful. If he is able to keep the number of complaints at or below the target number, he can earn access or points for access to some kind of reward or rewarding activity. **It’s important that he be successful on the first few attempts. You can (and should) bump the number lower as you he establish his ability for self-restraint. In order to not “penalize” him for an inexpert expression of a real issue, you can tell him “you only have X complaints—and that’s so there’s room for you to tell me what I really need to hear about.” If he goes over the limit, review his performance and ask how may of those complaints were “legit”, or if there were there ones he could have left go. Doing that teaches him the value of reflecting first vs. acting on impulse, and of budgeting opportunity.

Make up a chart, and keep it right there on the music stand. The chart should show the complaint limit, a tally of each complaint made during the lesson, the total complaints, and whether he earned or earned points towards the reward. The chart needs to be visible, so that he can see exactly where he stands.

Sara said: Sep 26, 2009
 Violin
191 posts

Thanks, Lucy! I’ll give that a try also. He’s a tough one!

“What is man’s ultimate direction in life? It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty.” Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Laura said: Sep 27, 2009
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

“It’s a violin lesson, not a therapy session”

I agree, Lucy! Although it can be of much value to us as teachers to try to understand why a student is misbehaving, there is rarely anything practical that can come of it as far as the student can directly experience during a weekly lesson. The best way to deal with the situation is to lay down the rules for what happens during your time and in your studio.

I have also used a system of “number of strikes allowed” during a lesson for certain types of behavior or comments. It has been effective.

Sara said: Sep 28, 2009
 Violin
191 posts

Thanks, everyone! I applied the suggested strategies of laying down the law (I was nice, but firm) And with a law there are consequences for breaking the law. So, for every complaint he gives he is assigned another page of theory (his biggest complaint of all!) We had no complaints today, no rolling eyes, no big sighs, absolutely a wonderfully refreshing lesson with not even a hint of complaining. He REALLY did not want to do more theory than he already had, which isn’t much. I don’t really like to have any assignment be a punishment, but sometimes you just have to resort I guess.

“What is man’s ultimate direction in life? It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty.” Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

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