For many, music is a great source of pleasure and a great way both to express yourself and even to escape. Music and other forms of art can be all of this and more for all children, including kids with learning disabilities (LD) and special needs. But have you faced challenges relate to your child’s LD in the musical arena that make learning to play an instrument, understand musicality, memorize lyrics or read music challenging for your child? Since it’s vitally important to allow all kids the opportunity to become a great musician, music aficionado or another type of artist, it’s worth taking some time to break down the barriers that may deter families of kids with differences from facing the music when it comes to teaching their kids the ins and outs of Do Re Mi.
How can learning to read music, play an instrument and be exposed to other fine arts be both challenging and rewarding for children with learning disabilities and AD/HD?
Learning to Play an InstrumentLearning to play an instrument is a fantastic goal to set for any child. It allows an opportunity to learn both the virtues of creating music plus a chance to develop the discipline required to practice regularly to make an instrument truly sing.
For kids with LD, learning to play an instrument provides both a great outlet and a chance to face head on (usually with the guidance of a private instructor and a dedicated parent) challenges they may be experiencing like trouble paying attention, problems reading letters or deciphering numbers and sticking to a set rhythm or routine. Plus, kids with LD are often extremely artistic, sometimes have the innate ability to learn to play by ear and can often become quite amazing musicians/artists in other ways if they are given patience and appropriate and/or modified instruction.
For kids with autism or pragmatic language disorder or similar challenges, understanding how to develop a specific technique while playing may also present a challenge along with understanding a teacher’s instruction. For example, when my son (he has PDD-NOS) was younger, he had trouble listening to and recognizing the subtle nuances in the intonation of music (such as playing staccato vs. legato). In his case, both the vocabulary related to music instruction itself plus the ability to understand subtle directions in how to adjust tone or technique presented a unique challenge.
But if you take the time to find the right music teacher, one who is patient and understands your child’s limitations and special needs, music instruction can be an amazing experience for your child, your music teacher and you.
These are the things you’ll need to make the instrumental music experience go well for your child:
An instrument that your child is interested in and that fits in well with your lifestyle. (Do you own a piano? Do you have the trunk space for a cello? Are you up for hours of drum practice?)
A curriculum that’s the right fit for your child and your family. (Does it require daily practice? How much time is required on a weekly or monthly basis?)
A teacher who has experience teaching kids with LD and special needs, who embraces these children and is willing to adjust her teaching methods to fit your child’s needs.
Learning to Read MusicKids with LDs such as dyslexia and dyscalculia as well as AD/HD may find it more difficult to learn to read music. The combination of reading letters, recognizing numbers and symbols, and keeping the correct time (Is the count 1,2,3 - 1,2,3 or 1, 2, 3, 4 - 1, 2, 3, 4?) added to the attention it takes to play the instrument and follow directional movement (right hand does this, left hand does that) can be challenging, to say the least. But with direct, patient instruction that moves at a pace your child can handle (with extra time when necessary), kids with LD can pick up this skill.
Here are some tips for helping your child with LD learn to read music:
Find a music theory curriculum that is the right fit for your child and progresses slowly or by grade. We use a program called Theory Time.
Look for opportunities to practice reading music together, just as you would read a book with your child. We read the musical score in the hymnal at church while singing.
Purchase the score for a favorite band or musical that your child enjoys and read it together while listening to the CD.
Download the musical score for popular songs that your child knows like The Star Spangled Banner or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and others. Read the music together while singing.
Once your child gets the hang of the basic notes and theory, encourage her to write her own music. Help her make up and write down lyrics, too—this makes it even more fun!
Learning LyricsChildren with dyslexia, expressive language disorder, speech articulation disorders or other language problems may have difficulty memorizing songs and lyrics. Basic childhood experiences like participating in a children’s choir at school or church or participating in circle/music time in Scouts or at camp may be difficult or embarrassing for kids who have a lot of trouble memorizing words due to problems with rote memory, working memory or rapid naming.
Here’s what I’ve found can help:
Get a CD of the music that your child will be learning and singing at school, church or camp ahead of time and allow him to listen to it until he memorizes the words.
Listen to music your child is learning along with her and encourage her to sing aloud so you can listen.
If you hear your child pronouncing a word incorrectly or can tell that he doesn’t understand what he is singing about, stop him and have a quick chat about the meaning of the word or phrase. This will help him to memorize.
Thank You for the Music One of my all-time favorite songs (most recently sung by Amanda Seyfried as a hidden track at the end of the Mamma Mia soundtrack) is Thank You for the Music, originally recorded by Abba. Listen to it here and read some of the key lyrics:
Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing Who can live without it? I ask with all honesty What would life be? Without a song and a dance, what are we? So I say, thank you for the music For giving it to me…
OK, so it’s a little cheesy (or maybe it’s Amanda’s angelic voice) but I tear up every time I hear those lyrics! My parents gave me and my older sister the gift of music. And, the gift of music is something that I’m committed to giving to my children as well, despite their learning differences and special needs.
With all of the extra support parents of kids with disabilities must give their children (tutoring, therapy, medical attention, emotional support) adding a focus on music is an addition that can bring both joy and real purpose to our children’s lives. While music, sports and other “extras” are definitely difficult to add into our already packed routines and responsibilities, giving kids the gift of music, especially kids with LD, is something that parents should view as an opportunity to add both joy and a positive challenge to your child’s life—for years to come.
Lyn Pollard is a freelance writer, parent advocate, and the mother of two kids who learn and play differently. A former journalist and change management consultant, Lyn writes, talks and tweets about advocacy, literacy and safe schools for kids with learning disabilities and special needs. Check out her piece in the New York Times.