Creative Adaptations for Teaching Piano to those With Special Learning Needs


In addition to my music therapy sessions I have the absolute privilege of teaching adapted piano and guitar lessons to children and teens with special needs and different learning styles. People often ask – what does “adapted” lessons mean? Great question. It means I provide adaptations and alternate ways for my clients or students to learn an instrument. It takes CREATIVITY!

Here are some creative adaptations I use for my piano lessons with children who may have attention deficit issues or learning differences:

1) Provide extra practice material

I find that some piano books move too quickly for my students. So I supplement by adding my own additional practice sheets. For example, if the lesson is teaching notes C-G in treble clef often times there might only be one or two pages to allow the student to practice that before moving on to the bass clef notes. If the student needs more practice in this area, I go on Finale and print out short melodies of treble clef notes C-G. This way the student will have more opportunities to practice those notes without playing the same two pages in the book over and over.

2) Cover distracting pictures

I find some children’s piano books to be very distracting and the pages to be very “busy.” If it is overstimulating for me, I can only imagine what it feels like to the student! Oftentimes the pictures will lead the student into a tangent about that picture and have proven to be very distracting. So I often over up these pictures to create a nice, clean white page. This way the student can focus solely on the notes on the page rather than the pictures on the page.

3) Add musical games

I noticed that it was very hard for some of the students to learn note names on the treble and bass clefs. So I decided to make a game out of it. I created my own musical flashcards by drawing and labeling notes on index cards. Now, about 15 or 20 minutes into the lesson, I take the student away from the piano and play Go Fish or Memory. This is a fun and motivating way to learn note names and musical signs, and it’s nice to step away from the piano for a bit (especially during those 45-minute lessons!)

Here’s how to play:

Go Fish: Create flashcards that have various musical notes (middle C) or signs (quarter rest, treble clef). Make sure there are two cards of each kind of musical note or sign. Depending on the level of the student, give the student 8 cards and yourself 8 cards. Place the rest of the cards in a pile between you. Ask for example “Do you have a Middle C?” If the student does, he gives you the card. If not, you pick a card from the pile. Continue until you have matches of all the cards.

(I will also occasionally give the student the wrong card just to make sure they are paying attention! I also work in many times where I can ask the student “Is this a treble clef?” or “What card are you holding?”)

Memory: Create flashcards that have various musical notes (middle C) or signs (quarter rest, treble clef). Make sure there are two cards of each kind of musical note or sign. Place all the cards face down (a total of about 10 cards is usually sufficient, depending on the level of the student). The teacher turns over two cards at random and asks the students to label. If the cards match, she keeps them; if they do not match she places them face down again. The student turns over two cards at random and labels them. If the cards match, he keeps them; if they do not match he places them face down again. Continue until all the cards are picked up and matched.

4) Add movement

Sitting at the piano for even 15 minutes can be a long time for some of my students. I always make sure to break up the lesson with musical games to reinforce note names and musical signs. I also use music and movement to help wake up their body and brain and get them ready to focus for the second half of the session. This could be anything from marching around the room to piano music to a freeze dance with guitar accompaniment. (I find it is refreshing for the student AND for me!)

These are just some of the strategies I use to teach piano to students with special needs and different learning styles.

Now I would love to hear what has (or hasn’t!) worked for you. Leave a comment below to let us know what strategies YOU use during your regular or adapted lessons. I would love to hear some new ideas and strategies!

Image courtesy of [sixninepixels] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Comments (12)

  • Darcy

    Love these ideas, Amy! I teach a lesson this afternoon and have been spending some time this morning coming up with new ways to work on the material. Even for “traditional” lessons, it helps to infuse CREATIVITY! Thanks for sharing!

    • Amy

      Yes creativity is key!! Thanks for your feedback Darcy!

  • Ashley Lundquist

    Love it!

    • Amy


  • CJ Shiloh

    Great suggestions! Having over a decade of experience in giving classical piano lessons, and then branching into adaptive piano lessons over the past 5 years, this post is “right up my alley.” = )

    For some students who might have great pitch recognition, but lack the fine motor skill to play to their ear’s desire, I find that keyboards that give full chord sounds with a “one finger” setting really help.

    I agree with you on how over-stimming method books can be! I recently discovered Innovative Piano Inc., their books are *quite* plain and slow paced. Ideal for those on slow learning curves.

    And yes, always, always break up the session with song and dance! 🙂

    • Amy

      Thanks for your input CJ. I love the idea of using the one finger accompaniment – it gives such a nice, full sound!

  • Antoinette Morrison

    Timing of this article is perfect, just acquired my first two students this week! Thank you! Antoinette

    • Amy

      Great! Check back in and let us know how it is going!

  • Joanne

    Hi, im new to this platform. Im looking for ways to upgrade/downgrade an electronic keyboard for a little.girl with Retts syndrome. Any ideas. ..im open!thanks

    • Amy

      Hi Joanne, I’m happy to help, but can you clarify what you mean by upgrade or downgrade? Thanks!


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