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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Students with Special Needs: Strategies for Inclusion

As I continue my focus on reflecting, respecting, and responding to marginalized people and perspectives in the music room, I'm focusing again today on students with differing abilities. I wrote previously about ideas for reflecting people with special needs in the visuals, stories, and materials that we use (read that post here), but today I'm talking about strategies for better responding to the needs of students with differing abilities in the inclusive music class setting.

I have been teaching integrated music classes with students from self-contained special education classrooms and general education classroom settings for a few years now, and I have also had experience working with students who are in the general education classrooms with individual accommodations and/or aids and other differing abilities and needs. Many of the ideas in this post come from those experiences, but I am also drawing from advice shared from other music teachers and special education teachers with a range of experiences, including parenting children with special needs, working in self-contained classrooms, getting certification in special education, and more: thank you Chris Powers from Madison, WI, Helga Thordsen from Priest Lake Christian Academy, Stuart Penman from Woodlands Special School in Plymouth UK, Amy Corvi, Melissa Ann, Jocelyn Escobar Patterson, and Laura Allison for sharing their insights!

The great thing about the strategies and ideas I'm sharing today is that they are effective for all learners, not just students designated with "special needs". No matter what your teaching situation may be, this is good advice for all of us!

Communicate and Seek Information

The most important element for successfully responding to differing needs and abilities in the classroom is communication and information! This is especially important for teachers like us who teach hundreds of students- we are often left out of the loop on IEP's and other individualized plans, information about specific needs or accommodations, etc and that can be detrimental to our ability to effectively respond to individual student needs. I have found (and many other teachers echoed this as well) that the most important thing I can do is to stay in as regular contact with special education teachers and other specialists who work with my students. Besides making sure I understand each student's needs and strengths, I check in regularly with teachers to find out how they perceive things are going in music class, and ask them about anything unusual I may have noticed to get their advice. I also send teachers the upcoming month's lesson outline each month so that they can see what we will be working on and anticipate anything that might be difficult for specific students. Communication can make all the difference in the world!

Build Relationships with Para's and Aids

One of the most difficult aspects of teaching integrated classes for music teachers can be working with other adults that come with students as paraprofessionals, 1-on-1 aids, or other forms of student support. It can be awkward to know how to seamlessly integrate another adult into the running of your classroom, especially if you're used to doing things a certain way (not that I would know anything about that..... *cough*)! As already mentioned, communication is the key here- para's can be your biggest asset for teaching students with special needs if you are both clear on how to best work with each other in the classroom, and building positive relationships with them will help you avoid any feelings of resentment if you need to ask them to change the way they operate in your space.

One thing I have learned over the years is the importance of giving aids a specific place to sit in the classroom (at least as a starting point). Often I've found it works best for me to have them sitting just behind or next to the student(s) they're working with so they're not part of the student seating configuration but still close by (so if the students are in a circle, have the para sit just outside the circle, or if the students are in rows, have the aid sit next to the end of a row, etc). Figuring out a way for the adult to unobtrusively work with their assigned students while still giving those students a sense of belonging within the classroom setup will not only help the students feel more included but will allow the para's to be more comfortable interacting with their students without feeling like they are getting in your way. This setup also allows students to develop independence more quickly with the aid out of their direct line of sight.

Build on Individual Strengths

Finding opportunities for students with differing abilities to model a skill for the class whenever they're able can make a huge difference in building respect amongst all students and fostering classroom community and belonging. Observe students and find their strengths, and look for opportunities to have them demonstrate something for other students that plays to those strengths. You can also use those strengths as the starting point for fostering new skills.

Visual Cues

Depending on student needs, visual cues can help reinforce specific classroom procedures or concepts. Visual schedules can help students anticipate what's coming next, pictures can help pre-readers with new concepts, and if/then charts can help remind students of consequences and motivators.

Another very successful way of using visual cues to help students with special needs (and all students!) is through color coding. Colors can be a great learning tool for everyone (in fact I color-code everything to help me stay organized myself!), especially when it comes to reading music notation. Color-code the notes on the page/ screen to match classroom instruments, or add (non-damaging) small stickers to notes on pitched instruments to match the notation. Boomwhackers, colored handbells, glockenspiels with colored bars, and other color-coded instruments are great tools to aid with melodic note reading and understanding pitch concepts!

Visual cues can be especially helpful in music classrooms because there are so many stimuli competing for children's attention! If you haven't heard of it before, the prompting hierarchy is something special educators use that can be helpful for thinking about ways to support students who are struggling.

Repetition & Structure

Giving students an opportunity to hear the same song and do the same activity several times can be a great tool to build learning. In a self-contained setting, you can do this by repeating the same activities over several lessons. In an integrated classroom, I've found it's a great opportunity to build skills for students on the full spectrum of abilities by adding new elements to the same activity, whether that's adding new movement or instrument parts to a song, having students notate a familiar song while others sing it, or using other ways to extend learning with the same material.

Repetition also applies to the overall structure of a lesson- having a predictable routine for each class period can reduce anxiety and help all students feel more comfortable. Here are my procedures for beginning class, and here are my procedures for the end of class. You don't have to follow the exact same formula every day, but incorporating some predictability into the beginning and end of class at least will make a huge difference!

Being able to anticipate what comes next and understanding what is expected of them can make a huge difference in all students' comfort level in the classroom, especially for students with social/emotional needs. Procedures are everything! Whether it's handing out instruments and materials to students, moving from one place to another, or transitioning between activities, it is so helpful to clearly explain and break down procedures when you're doing something new (and review those procedures until students are comfortable)! This means as teachers we need to reflect on what procedures we will need to do the activities we've planned in our lessons, and think through the most efficient ways to do them. If you know there are certain procedures that will be especially difficult for certain students, ask the homeroom/ special education teacher if they can pre-teach them beforehand, and make sure para's and other adults in the room know what the expectations are so they can help reinforce them as well.


Exploration is another key that is valuable for all learners but often gets lost in the push to fit everything into short class times. Some students may benefit from having more time to explore an instrument while others are practicing playing specific rhythms, for example, or explore vocal sounds while others are working on pitch matching or demonstrating specific voice types etc. As much as I can, I've tried to be more conscious about giving students time to freely explore new instruments and their own voices rather than jumping straight into specific skills, and this has been an asset for everyone's learning (and behavior)!

Additional Resources

If you're working with students with differing abilities, I highly recommend these two books by Alice Hammel for great insights into overarching issues as well as specific strategies that directly apply to music teaching:

Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-Free Approach
Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Practical Resource

These websites have lots of information for specific needs and strategies:

Coast Music Therapy
Intervention Central

I hope this post helps other music teachers better meet the needs of all students, especially those with differing abilities. What have been your experiences working with students with special needs? Please leave questions and ideas in the comments so that we can all continue to learn from each other!

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  1. I absolutely LOVE this post. As a mom to an autistic child and a music teacher who values how important including each child in the music classroom is, this post was spot on! I love how you made it a point to know the paras and the resource teachers to inquire about your students. You're doing an amazing job and I think it's so amazing how much you go out of your way to make sure each student knows they can succeed in the music room.

    1. Thanks so much, Jessica! I'm so grateful to hear your perspective and I'm glad you found a lot of the ideas fit your experience! Thanks so much for sharing.