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 this population of 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 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* wearing...you get the idea! Lots of factors can influence the success of music class, but I’ve found 4 consistently helpful strategies that maybe you can also consider if you’re teaching elementary music from a cart in a special needs classroom.
It’s a good idea to touch base with the teacher to see what ideas she may have for when music time rolls around (Anyone else get that cart joke? No? Okay, moving on…). Can the students sit in the carpet area on the floor? Would sitting in a chair provide better physical structure and boundaries? How many paraprofessionals will be present during music time (lunch breaks are usually staggered for them)? How will they sit in accordance to the students they work with? Knowing where and how you’d like your students to sit, 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 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.
Teaching from a cart means you have to bring ALL your necessary materials with you for a good chunk of the day 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 to that the fact that you’ll want to keep your cart in close proximity to where you’re teaching in the room, but think about it...you’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 covering items on your cart via:
I’ve had times where one of my students with special needs successfully lunged for an item and, to avoid World War III while attempting to get it back, I had to employ a ‘bait and switch’ or distract them and get their attention on something else. I’ll always be amazed at how the smallest hands can have the tightest death grip! Or, instead of the death grip, my instrument gets hurled to the other side of the room to unceremoniously crash into the wall or hit an unaware 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. However, if it’s covered up and can’t be seen, it eliminates the time spent addressing it. Out of sight, out of mind!
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 understand you’re excited but lower your voice a bit because I’m sitting right here a few inches in front of you,” just say, “Indoor voice.” Instead of, "Suzy, you must 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...
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.
The teacher was already using that PCS in his room, so I asked for a bigger copy that I could also use. BEST DECISION EVER!! In trying to teach taking turns and listening skills, the Quiet Voice poster along with the Raise Your Hand one 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 the same situations in their classroom. Print it. Laminate it. Add magnet strips to 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!
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