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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Self-Contained Special Education Music Classes: tips and resources

After writing a couple of posts on strategies for teaching students with special needs in integrated music classes in the fall, I got a lot of requests for tips on teaching students with differing abilities in the self-contained setting. While I am certainly no expert in this field, I have had the opportunity to teach a few self-contained classes over the years, including the current school year, and I have done a good bit of research in the area and spoken with several more experienced teachers about their best strategies. Hopefully these tips will serve as a starting point for music teachers like me who don't have specialized training in special education but are thrown into this teaching situation!

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First of all it's important to note that, since no two people are alike, no two self-contained classes are alike either. There are vast differences in setting, class size, available staffing, materials and resources, and most importantly, student strengths, needs, abilities, and interests. The ideas I'm sharing today are general enough to apply to most situations, but as with any aspect of teaching, it's important to take individual factors into account as you consider these suggestions!

All of the things I mentioned in my previous post on integrated classes definitely still apply here- be sure to read the full post for more detailed suggestions for each of these areas:
  • communicate with special education teachers and other staff and seek out as much information as possible about individual students' strengths, needs, and interests
  • build relationships with paras, aids, and other staff members
  • provide opportunities for students to share areas of strength in class
  • use lots of visual cues
  • give time for exploration
  • build in lots of repetition and structure 
Beyond these strategies, though, I have found a few key tips that have helped make lessons with my self-contained classes much more successful:

1. Consistency and predictability

All elementary students benefit from predictable routines, but the benefits are magnified for most students in self-contained classes. I've had a lot of success picking a set lesson structure and using the same sequence every time. Depending on the needs of the students in each class, it may even be best to do the exact same lesson plan at least two times for students to better process and have more opportunities to fully participate and engage. Regardless of how much you repeat an exact lesson or activity, though, it's very helpful to find a formula that works and vary the activities within each segment of the lesson as often or as little as appropriate.

For example, you might start with a story, then do some vocal warmups, then instrument exploration, listening and movement, and singing. I've found that each group of students responds differently to different types of activities, so I play around with the sequence and type of lesson activities until I find the formula that's most successful. The key is to find a formula and stick to it.

2. Involve all staff members

For self-contained classes, the class sizes are usually much smaller, which can make things like singing a lot more difficult because each voice is more exposed. Students also need as much modeling as possible. So getting the aids, paraprofessionals, and other staff in the room directly involved in the lesson is critical! Of course you'll want to warn them ahead of time, but if we're playing instruments, each adult gets their own instrument. If we're moving with scarves, the adults get scarves. If we're taking turns doing something, all the adults get turns too. Some of the staff may be hesitant at first, but if you're working to build positive relationships and treating them respectfully, and if you can explain why you're asking them to be involved, they should be able to get on board with what you're doing (and hopefully learn to enjoy it more as they get comfortable!).

3. Individual attention

Of course we want to do this for all of our students, but it's so important to make eye contact, say each students' name, and give plenty of individual positive reinforcement throughout the lesson. One of the benefits of self-contained classes is the freedom we have to spend more time focusing on each child- take advantage of that! It's easy to forget how much effort it sometimes takes for students to do things that we may take for granted, and if we take the time to acknowledge their efforts it will go a long way towards building trust and respect.

Along the same lines, don't be afraid to take that extra time to work with a student who is struggling with a particular assignment. Whether it's vocalizing, doing a physical activity, or even waiting for their turn, the best learning happens when we can stop and give them the extra time and support to work on that skill. And if a student has a breakthrough moment in class (or seems poised to) and starts doing something they weren't able to before, take the time to celebrate and reinforce that! I can always tell when something I didn't know was a big deal for a particular student is a brand new skill, because the staff's faces will light up and somebody will usually start frantically documenting the moment :)

4. Lesson content

This is the part where what works for one student, one class, one situation will not necessarily work for another, but here are some lesson activities that I (and other colleagues I've sought advice from) have found the most successful in self-contained music classes:
  • Literature-based lessons: here is a post with some of my favorite lesson plans using children's books
  • Movement with music: give students props like scarves, ribbon wands, etc, give them time to move freely with the music, have them mirror you, have students take turns coming up with movements for the rest of the class to copy, move on the beat
  • Instruments with music: simple instruments like rhythm sticks and hand drums are great for this- have students take turns playing a simple rhythm ostinato or steady beat with the music
  • Singing games: games like Apple Tree, Bluebird, Pass the Pumpkin, Acka Backa, etc 
  • Echo and call and response songs
5. Resources

I mentioned these in my previous post but they're worth mentioning again: 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

For self-contained classes specifically, though, Creative Miracles by Kelly Surette is an absolute goldmine!

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

Coast Music Therapy
Intervention Central

I want to note that, whenever we can, I think it's important for us to advocate for inclusion as much as possible. As I discuss in my previous posts on inclusion, it's beneficial for all students when everyone can be included in the same class together. Don't think that as a music teacher you have no say in the matter- I have found that there are a lot more opportunities for me to advocate for the needs of my students with special needs than I realized when I first started teaching, so stay in close communication with colleagues and look for those opportunities whenever you can. That being said, I know that there are many times when we don't have control over where students are placed, and there are times when a self-contained setting is the most appropriate for particular students for one reason or another. For those situations, I hope you find these suggestions helpful!

Please help us all continue to learn and continue the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments below. I'd love to hear your success stories, favorite lesson ideas, and helpful resources!


  1. This was very helpful information; thank you so much for sharing!

    1. So glad it was helpful- best wishes on your school year!