Music on a Cart

Teaching Elementary Music to Students with Special Needs

January 19, 2017 4:59 PM By Danielle
Tips for Teaching Elementary Music to Students with Special Needs |

Teaching and working with children is quite the learning experience! This has been especially true in teaching my students with special needs. As time goes on and I continue working with students in a variety of settings, I’m constantly learning how to adapt and modify my lessons to help with the flow of music class, which in turn provides the best environment for them to learn. These changes often occur on a weekly (and even a daily) basis depending on which students I’m teaching, what time of day their music class is, how their day has gone so far, if they like/dislike the shirt they’re wearing, if they like/dislike the shirt I'm get the idea! Lots of factors can influence the success of music class, but I’ve found four consistently helpful strategies that maybe you can also consider if you’re teaching elementary music from a cart in a self-contained or mainstreamed classroom.

Decide on Seating

It’s a good idea to touch base with the teacher to see what ideas s/he may have for when music time rolls around (Anyone else get that cart joke? Just me? Oh...okay moving on 😆 ). For example, some situations you'd might want to address could be:

  • Will students sit in a circle on the floor or would sitting in chairs setup in a line or a semi-circle provide better physical structure and boundaries? 
  • How many paraprofessionals or teacher assistants will be present during music time? 
  • How will those adults sit in accordance to the students they work with (side-by-side, behind, etc.)? How involved with the students do you want them to be?

Determining the answers to those questions, along with asking the teacher to have the students ready and waiting for when you arrive, helps eliminate a lot of wasted time for your music class. Also, be mindful of what direction your students are facing. Are they facing the teacher’s computer which causes a distraction as the teacher types emails or lesson plans during music class? Are they sitting near or facing an area with lots of toys or books that they may be tempted to pull down or take out during music time? Don’t be afraid to bring up your concerns with the teacher and work together towards a solution.

Consider a Cover

Teaching from a cart means you have to bring ALL your necessary materials with you for a good chunk of the day or until your next opportunity to switch out instruments or materials. Often, this means that some classes may work with certain instruments that other classes will not. Add the fact that you’ll want to keep your cart in close proximity to where you’re teaching in the room. But think about’ll have quick and easy access for grabbing things, but so will your students!  To help eliminate the chances of snatching fingers and grabbing hands, you may want to consider making your cart items "disappear" by hiding them with:

  • A large poster or two→ hung on the side of your cart to cover what's behind it (poster examples can include your class rules, the lesson objectives, an inspirational saying, music quote, etc.)
  • A makeshift curtainuse a large piece of fabric to hang up on your cart with Velcro®, magnets, tape, or if you want to get *really* fancy -> a small tension rod!
  • A blanket simply drape it on top of the instruments you're not using at the moment

I’ve had times where one of my students successfully lunged for an item and, to avoid total meltdowns while attempting to get it back, I had to employ a ‘bait and switch’ or distract them and get their attention onto something else. I’m always be amazed at how the smallest hands can have the tightest death grip! Or, instead of the death grip, my instrument gets hurled across the room to unceremoniously crash into the wall or hit an unsuspecting victim. Other times a student might ask me repeatedly when we’re going to use *insert instrument name* over and over and OVER again. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally acquiescing so I'll sometimes allow them to musically experiment with said instrument on the spot (it's a great learning moment), but sometimes when you’re trying to hit certain curricular points (SGO’s/SLO’s anyone?) the constant questions each and every music class will suck up tons of time. But, if it’s covered up and can’t be seen, it eliminates the time spent addressing it. Out of sight, out of mind! 

Keep it Simple

Speaking of eliminating wasted time, if you want to make the most valuable use of your music class time, it helps to have short, succinct phrases to redirect off task behavior. Whenever possible, I like to boil it down to simple 1- or 2-word phrases. Rather than saying, “Michael, I know you’re excited but you can lower your voice a bit because I’m sitting right here a few inches in front of you,” just say, “Indoor voice.”  Instead of, "Anna, you have to take that out of your mouth," simply say, "No mouth."

Redirecting behavior and giving verbal prompts with as few words as possible is a technique that many special needs teachers incorporate because it clearly and concisely lets the student know what they need to do. Along with that, these short phrases will save you time PLUS save your voice. And while we’re on the topic of saving your voice...

Utilize Visuals

I’m all about using a good visual to get the point across! Having a picture that demonstrates what you want the student to do is great because you can easily point to it or hold it up without saying a word. An example of this in action is when I’m singing melodic echoing patterns with students one at a time, and while I’m using my 'pretend microphone' working with one student, another student might interrupt by trying to take their turn or asking about the most random thing ever. I’ll simply take the Quiet Voice poster and hold it up while continuing to echo with the student I’m working with. Or, if it was an interrupting question, I'll hold up the Raise Your Hand poster as a reminder. No time lost and no vocal explanation needed! The Quiet Voice picture I use is an enlarged up copy of a PCS (Picture Communication Symbol) through BoardMaker software. BoardMaker is quite expensive, but it's a very standard purchase districts make for certified special needs teachers to use in their students' communication charts and visuals around their classrooms. Ask the teacher in your school building and they'll probably be more than happy to help and print out images for you to use since it matches what their students see daily in their programs.

Use lots of visuals when teaching elementary music to students with special needs. |
My most used behavior visuals

I asked for a bigger copy of the 'quiet' PCS and added the words "Quiet Voice" on top before laminating it. BEST DECISION EVER!  In trying to teach skills such as taking turns, waiting, and listening, the four posters above are easily my most often used posters (for ALL of my classes, really). So think about the key phrases, verbal prompts, or redirects you repeatedly say and ask the special needs teacher at your school if they have a corresponding visual that they use for similar situations in their classroom. Print it. Laminate it. Add magnet strips to the back of it. And use it!  The consistency of visuals is good for your students and your voice will thank you!

How about you? What are some difficulties you face being on a cart in a special needs classroom? What techniques or strategies have you found helpful in your music classes? “Sharing is caring” so leave some valuable jewels of wisdom in the comments below!

Encouraging you to rock as you roll,

Looking for more resources for teaching elementary music? Check out the Cart Closet! |


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