Tricky behavior during lessons

said: Jun 1, 2010
 2 posts


I am a new Suzuki parent and my daughter (4) has been taking cello lessons for about 6 weeks. She is motivated to practice and easily practices 30 minutes a day and appears to be understanding all the concepts. During practice I’m demanding about posture, following directions, etc. during practice and she is attentive and focussed for the most part. She adores her teacher and talks about her frequently and has said that she wants to be a cello teacher when she grows up.

BUT, when her teacher is here she is a complete clown, uses a bizarre voice, is distracted, and can barely follow directions, let alone demonstrate what she’s learned. The only time she sobers up is when she is learning something new. I email weekly practice updates to her teacher the night before her lesson, so in theory the teacher knows where she has improved; but it is difficult for her to see for herself. I am very frustrated and say nothing during the lesson so as not to undermine her teacher’s authority, but I am starting to lose my patience at what I read as disrespectful behavior.

My daughter and I talk about this frequently and she understands I’m not happy about this; she says she’ll pay attention but morphs right back into a clown. She gets pennies for lessons 5 for the best effort, 1 if she takes a bow at least. She’s had a four penny lesson, and the last few lessons have earned her a penny. She insists that she wants to learn cello, and with this teacher in particular. Her teacher is wonderful, serious, patient and committed, and has assured me that she is in it for the long haul. My daughter gave an impromptu concert for her aunt and uncle and played everything well (without my asking her to, and frankly, to my surprise. She didn’t want to stop)

The lessons are private and at home and I am hoping that she will be able to join a weekly group cello class starting September. The teacher believes this is about their dynamic and is going to give this a good think, but is there anything I should be doing as well? Thank you so much.

Jennifer Visick said: Jun 1, 2010
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
1076 posts

6 weeks is hardly time to “get to know” the teacher, especially at age 4. My first suggestion would be to give it some time (while continuing to model and reinforce the mental focus that you are looking for).

Does she show elements of this kind of behavior (using voices, etc) in other areas of life? Is this the first “private lesson” type of situation she has ever had?

Perhaps the teacher can help choose a peer model—a slightly older student of your teacher whose lesson your child can watch, with the idea of imitating the older student’s mental focus.

How long are the lessons? If schedules permit, perhaps asking for more frequent, shorter lessons may help lessen the pressure your daughter might feel.

Does the teacher have a studio that you can go to for lessons? Attending a lesson in a different location that is “not home” can help encourage respectful behavior in many students.

Barb said: Jun 2, 2010
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
685 posts

I have a student who is somewhat like this with the clowning, voices, but she is a bit older. (She was 6 when she started lessons with me.) Yesterday I had to say, “I’m sorry, I have trouble understanding you when you use that accent.” I usually ignore what I can, but when it becomes an issue I say so and she is usually cooperative. She tends to be more this way when her dad attends the lesson, and I think in that case she may be performing for him. He gets very frustrated with it even at the level where it doesn’t bother me, and I think she feeds on this. I think the way you remain quiet and let the teacher deal with it is the better way. I have had this student almost two years, and it has toned down some with time. I think it helps when I ignore it and she eventually forgets and focuses more on the music. (The clowning is always strongest at the beginning of the lesson.) Sometimes I might play along with some silliness for a minute, and then say something like, “Okay, now it’s time to be serious.” But she is 8 now, not 4.

You say she’s doing well with practice, adores her teacher… these things will likely lead to success! Maybe only six weeks in, she is feeling a bit uncomfortable with the new situation, new person (as much as she adores her), and the clowning is her way of dealing with that. Much like the post about the young performer being silly on stage.

You say she sobers up when learning something new—can I trade her for another student I have who is most uncooperative when it’s time to learn something new? He is not progressing as fast as he could! :(

I had a fairly uncooperative student once whose mother would take him for a treat after the lesson if he behaved. I think that he would intentionally misbehave to get his mom’s attention and to remind her that he (supposedly) needed that promise of a treat in order to behave. He would act up and she would say, “Do you want to get a treat?” More often than not, at least twice during the lesson. He was seven and I felt he was fully capable of behaving just for the sake of behaving, but that he was manipulating her into thinking he needed a treat in order to behave. Does that make any sense? It doesn’t sound at all like that is your situation here, but I say that just to warn you that that can happen.

Hopefully, given some time, the teacher and your daughter will develop a relationship of trust and respect while still having fun, and the silliness will taper off. Four years old is still young, though, so enjoy some clowning now and then! I have to tell you, we have a son who was a clown. He is now almost 17 and so sober that we sometimes really miss the little boy clowning! :(

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said: Jun 2, 2010
 6 posts

I wish my daughter had been a clown at her lessons. At least, someone (maybe the teacher) would occasionally have found it funny. Instead, she was either completely unfocused or terribly behaved (rude, whiney, etc.). Looking back on it, I think that it was very much a result of my so much wanting the teacher to witness my daughter’s abilities, which I was seeing at home. It seemed like the more I wanted it, the less well my daughter performed. I think that it must be terribly stressful to have one adult role-model observe you ‘perform’ for another adult role model. Everything is resting on the child’s shoulders; they are supposed to make their parent proud by impressing their teacher. Instead of trying and risking failure, they give up and just misbehave. It seemed to me that some children whose parents didn’t seem to care as much were much more relaxed at lessons.

Even if this is the correct diagnosis of the problem, it is not a solution. Certainly it’s better for a parent to be involved. But I guess it’s the nature of the involvement that matters. I told myself that I cared because my daughter would progress better and feel more successful if the teacher could witness her true abilities. But actually, my ego was wrapped up in it as well. If this is true in your case, then I’d suggest that you try to work on this issue independently (maybe with a therapist or with other Suzuki parents).

Good luck with it. It sounds like your daughter is doing very well with the cello.

Kathleen said: Jun 11, 2010
Kathleen AlkemaViolin
3 posts

Hi! I can so relate to your problem, both as a parent and a teacher. My 4 kids have all been silly and wasted lesson time like this. The kids need to learn how to take a lesson, respectfully and happily. Some kids get that intuitively and some don’t.

The most firm and yet gentle solution we’ve found is to just stop the lesson. The teacher explains the “rules” before the lesson: If the student doesn’t follow instructions then the teacher can’t teach, so we’ll have to end this lesson and come back next time and try again.

Then, when the child starts to be silly or refuses to follow instructions, they get a reminder that the lesson will have to stop if they aren’t ready to pay attention.

Then, immediately upon the next rude/silly behaviour, the teacher gently ends the lesson and the student goes home.

Parents shouldn’t add punishment to this, but should talk all that next week about their disappointment that they didn’t get to show the teacher how hard they’ve worked on __________, and how next week they’ll try again. They should also help the child know what to say/do instead when they don’t understand, feel silly or embarassed or shy…in other words, work it from the other angle at home, trying to find out why the child is acting this way.

(I discovered that one of my sons would not understand something his violin teacher said, and he’d zone out trying to work it out in his mind—we had to teach him to interrupt politely and ask the question. And another son will refocus immediately if you put your hand on his shoulder or back. Touch makes all the difference with him, and I discovered this in my practices with this at home and shared it with his piano teacher. She was able to totally turn his unfocused lesson behaviour around with a few simple changes.)

I hope that gives you an idea of something to discuss with your teacher. It sounds like your daughter is an eager learner and a joy!

Best wishes,

Kathleen said: Jun 11, 2010
Kathleen AlkemaViolin
3 posts

I should add that if your teacher does end your daughter’s lesson because she is silly or not following instructions, you should view that as a completed lesson and not expect your teacher to make it up. Remember, your little girl is learning more than just how to play the cello—she’s learning beautiful character and self discipline and a thousand other things that sometimes don’t translate into a picture-perfect 30 minute lesson!

Just my .02!

Enjoy the journey,

said: Oct 15, 2010
 2 posts

Thank you so much. I appreciate all of the replies, and value the points made in each one. I apologize for the late response; I left the country as soon as I posted, and didn’t realize I had received responses until now—when I returned to the exchange to read up on practice challenges that we are currently having! My daughter did settle in with the her teacher and lessons have been more productive. She began group cello about a month ago. The problem now is that I’m bombarding her with too many directions or directives, and we’re both getting frustrated. After reading some of the exchanges relating to those topics I am realizing that I have to focus on what she is doing right, focus on one or two things at a time, and raise the level of support and fun for her…I especially value the advice to enjoy the clown that she can be! I do forget to do that sometimes.

Thanks again,

Ruth Brons said: Oct 26, 2010
Ruth Brons
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
West Orange, NJ
150 posts

As a teacher, I have found that children will get silly as as a way of controlling the situation when they fear failure.
The early lessons have so much ground to cover, it is easy to imagine how a young student can be nervous about what he’s gotten himself into with a new adult he is not sure he trusts quite yet.
Parents need to understand that teachers encounter this behavior frequently.
Experienced teachers will have a variety of techniques [including patience!] to get through this stage, and the parent needs to somehow hang in there and refrain from injecting negativity into the situation.
Small and regular doses of daily practice and listening, and TIME, will see this behavior eventually become of thing of the past, as the student and teacher form their unique and trusting working relationship.

Best Wishes,

said: Nov 28, 2010
 1 posts

I was very interested to read this topic. I’m new to the Suzuki method as my son, age 4, just had his fourth violin lesson. He is shy in new situations, and the first couple of lessons were a little rough as far as his behavior was concerned…but his teacher was so patient and just worked with him until she found a way to get him to cooperate, more or less. He’s warming up and his most recent lesson was his best yet. He was very good behavior-wise through almost the whole thing. He got a little silly at the end, and I noticed that was when she was teaching him something new. I think a lot of kids will use silliness to deflect their uncertainty. My son is also the type who will know the answer or know how to do something but not quite be willing to say it or do it when asked. It’s just part of his personality. His teacher is adjusting to his needs so well and I think we will continue to see great progress. I will just keep really working with him at home. Fortunately, he absolutely loves music and really likes to practice and listen to his CD. So, we will keep hanging in there until he really is at ease enough and maybe a little more mature in the lessons. I’m just thankful for his teacher’s patience and ability. I can see why the Suzuki method works.

said: Nov 28, 2010
 8 posts


I think a lot of kids will use silliness to deflect their uncertainty.

Sooooooo true! My son (a very immature 7yo) used to get very goofy during lessons. We talked about it quite a bit and finally it came out that he was worried about making mistakes in front of his teacher. I told him that when he feels worried like that, he should just say so, and his teacher will find a way to make it easier by explaining a different way, breaking it down into smaller steps, etc. I even had him rehearse saying “I’m afraid that might be too hard for me.” His behavior got a lot better after this, even though he’s only actually said the words once or twice in an actual lesson.

Celia Jones said: Feb 15, 2011
72 posts

Just to add something to this old thread: My daughter is 3 and a half, and sometimes displays this kind of behaviour during lessons or when I arrange for her to play violin with an older child—ages 5 to 8—I see the silliness from the older children.

An interesting concept that I got from a child development book is that children don’t understand themselves why they behave badly—that sometimes they are surprised and even frightened by their own bad behaviour. Techniques I read about to deal with it are: naming the emotions; and helping the child visualise the emotions and then visualise boxing them up.

With my daughter, we talk about feeling “Nervous” and “excited”, and about “butterflies” in her tummy that are all fluttering about, making her want to jump about to. I tell her to stand up straight so the butterflies have as much room as possible, and she tells the butterflies “calm down”. Using this method, she can behave better, and then she praises herself for staying in control.

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