Any tips on handling extremely bad behaviour? (All Teachers)Posted by Beckie Tunnicliffe on November 29, 2018 at 3:45 pm
I’ve got a male piano student (child) who can have extremely bad behaviour (he has slight autism and ADHD) – some lessons he can be great but most lessons he will point blank refuse to play the pieces and just mess around on my piano and as patient I have been, I’m getting to a point where I’ve been down all of my usual avenues for behaviour and I’m now at a loss of what to do.
His Mum does stay in the lesson to support me and at times she has had to restrain him when he tries to run out of the lesson onto the street (I do feel sorry for her and she’s trying so hard to get him to behave and engage with the lesson, he apparently does lots of practice at home too).
I’ve tried today to sit down with him and chat to him about it but he just ended up swearing at his Mum so she promptly took him home.
Okay so I’ve never had to teach piano to a child like this before but I have just spent the last year working 1:1 with a child (who has Autistic Spectrum Disorder and ADHD), for 25 hours a week (when I’m not teaching piano/voice). Mine was aged 9. I’ve done a lot of further study and reading into autism and behaviour, as I’m now on the road to becoming a qualified school teacher.
The first thing to remember is that emotionally he will be younger than kids his age, regardless of what age he is. Every case is different but you usually need to use tone and language appropriate to a much younger child than their actual age. Although, as a general rule – simple and clear language is important and address every instruction with their name at the front. Do NOT repeat instructions over and over again – say them once, and give them time to process it. If you do need to repeat something, do it with the exact same wording; different wording can be interpreted as a whole new question or instruction and add to their processing time. Adding more new sentences and words to their head while they’re already processing your first instruction will just put them into overload. Overload = escape tactics, and if he is restrained or blocked in, you will never calm him down – this only adds fuel to the fire. If he’s in this mood in a lesson, you probably won’t get him back except in his own time.
As for you as a teacher, from a pedagogical point of view, your basic framework should consist of breaking everything down into clear, numbered steps (i.e. step 1, write the fingers and notes in; step 2, try the right hand, step 3 try the left, etc. although this might not even be broken down enough). Following that, break down your lesson into small chunks with clear targets for each timed chunk. Allow him to have a brain break in the middle of the lesson where he can pause for 3-5 minutes and switch off from piano. Try to recognise that he will be a visual learner, not an auditory or written learner; if you’re using notes on a staff, try using resources with bigger notes that have the letter names printed on them, and make sure he always has a separate diagram of his hands with finger numbers on. Get multicoloured sticky notes and stick a different colour to each key on the piano, making sure to only label the notes he will have to use, to avoid the multitude of unnecessary notes that might overload him. Finally, set up a reward system (stickers, sweets, whatever works really) and set a clear and, importantly, quantified target and tell him exactly what he will earn for achieving it. If this needs to be one sweet every five minutes for just attempting what you ask, then great.
All of this stuff might seem silly or strange or even obvious, and sorry if it seems like I’m trying to tell you how to be a piano teacher, but the thing with behaviour is that 90% of bad behaviour happens when a child feels overwhelmed or unengaged, and this happens when the child isn’t able to access the learning being presented to them. Get them engaged in learning that is achievable to them and lots of behaviour will go away. Autism itself is a brain condition, NOT a mental health condition; he’s literally wired differently to you or I. And learning about how Autists learn is totally separate to learning how other children learn. The above things are only a start – autistic children show more differences than similarities from case to case, and it has to be personal and rewarding to him. Make it especially clear in simple terms directed at him by name, that you won’t accept that behaviour. Remember that if his mum restrains him and chases him, he probably feels much safer to let off steam when you’re there than when you’re not.
In terms of specific advice about how to involve and support his parent, and gain her support too, try to get some time to chat to her separately too, when he’s not even in the house if possible. Explain to her that the best way to diffuse running-away situations is to give him all the freedom he needs to do so, within the bounds of safety. And do not restrain. He well feel attacked and resort to swearing or hitting or trying to escape again. It might get him back in the house in the short term but it will never stop him from running out of the house. If she wants a recognised approach to teaching him a new acceptable social behaviour (i.e. not running out of the house for safety) suggest that she looks up ‘Social Stories’, they are an excellent strategy for giving a child more information about certain situations that they don’t understand or react wrongly to. Finally, insist that she includes the boys’ school in these discussions if she hasn’t already done so; if they know that he is running out of the house at home, they will also try to find out more about that from him in ways that they are trained to (such as using an ELSA – Emotional Learning Support Assistant).
Finally, remember that as sad as it can be, if your lessons are overwhelming for him, or he sees them as an opportunity to have atteniton for acting up, it may be that learning an instrument is not the right thing for him at this stage in his personal development. It would lose you the income, I know, but you shouldn’t be afraid to refuse a booking if you don’t feel safe or happy to teach it, and it may in the short term be what’s best for the child too.
Hope that gives some insight. If you need more advice, I’ll try to recommend some books on behaviour or autism later on.
George Smith that is amazing feedback, really clear and to the point. As a parent of a similar child (and a music teacher) the one thing I would add is that perhaps he is finding it hard playing pieces. My son loves playing the piano but actually prefers more improvisational style or learning by ear instead. Why not try and do a creative project with him (inspired by his favourite picture or poem or anything he is interested in … eg trains if it was my son!). This has worked really well for us as it is more about their world so he can access the music better. Perhaps learning pieces more formally can come at a later time? … just a thought – best of luck
Something else that occurred to me – does he visit you for lessons or do you visit him? I think from your mention of taking him home, he’s visiting you? It might be that if he’s doing lots of practise in the week that he is engaging with piano nicely, and it’s the uncertainty of visiting your space and using a piano different to what he’s been practising on that creates a barrier to learning for him; as I mentioned above, most bad behaviour in children is rooted in a barrier to learning. If you could try some lessons visiting him, he might be a lot more settled. That way, his mum doesn’t have to be in the lesson either – having Mum watching puts on a lot of pressure, especially if he’s conscious of the fact that she’s there because of the potential for bad behaviour. A more comfortable, familiar space and piano, and taking precautions like mum’s presence out of his sight will potentially give him a bit more of a confidence boost and break down more barriers to learning; if he starts to feel he can succeed and he’s not expected to misbehave, he’ll settle slowly.
There’s no catch all, miracle cure for badly behaved children but safe, secure routine, set alongside clear, realistic, achievable expectations are crucial to children with autism even more than other children.
MemberNovember 29, 2018 at 3:51 pm
He does visit me as I do all my lessons from my home studio. He also has flute lessons in school and his school report said he was showing the same behaviour that he does to me. I have other children on the autistic spectrum who work so hard and are an absolute delight to teach yet I’ve never experienced anything like this before!
I see! Every case is different of course and it’s a real learning curve the first time you encounter such a case. If you’re really struggling to get to grips with exactly what’s going on in his head then try referring to the autistic triad of impairments, the very base level of what autism can look like, and work out exactly how those things manifest in him. What exact elements of acceptable behaviour or communication is he misunderstanding? Consider that he’s also extremely likely to have a sensory need too, and this can be related to sound or detailed physical work – He may find some elements of music very conflicting. Once you’ve thought it through from that basis, consider how you’d react to your lessons if you had those ideas or misunderstandings, and adjust accordingly.
Golden rule really is thus – behaviour is communication. Sometimes it’s just communicating that they want their own way or they don’t like what they’re doing, but this sounds very linked to his experience of music. It may even be that he’s having a negative experience of flute and projecting that in your lessons too. Or that music taught in two different ways is overload. Either way, it sounds like finding further links between instances of misbehaviour in music might explain something.
Ah thanks, it’s an area that I’ve got a good proportion of experience in so I’m glad to offer some advice🙂Improvisation is an odd one and we can only find out how effective it will be on an individual basis, as with everything! It takes a lot of pressure off in some ways because they don’t have to play a written out tune or something specified; you can also give a set number of notes to improvise on (eg pentatonic scale played 3 fingers on one hand and 2 on the other, or similar) and actually get better results than an unrestricted approach, and it doesn’t matter if they touch an extra note here and there either. Lots of opportunity for praise. On the other hand, another autistic child might much prefer the security of having a simple written out melody to follow, knowing exactly what they have to play and gaining the pleasure from success – in this case it is important to keep everything as achievable as possible; piano is strictly extra-curricular and there shouldn’t be any pressure on progress for a child who plays for therapy and the chance for the routine and certainty that comes with having a regularly visiting adult. It’s really individual to the child, and every child is unique!
The piano lesson cannot be the only form of learning where the pupil experiences the kind of organisation and tips you see above.
MemberNovember 29, 2018 at 4:02 pm
use a structure and methods such as those others have outlined, but we all like familiarity- give the lessons a shape that becomes familiar, and free improvising may not be bad- channel the messing around if you can. Link in with methods being used in other learning and use mum to get some consistent approaches, as the child will benefit from this. he may have some form of IT support (often in the form of specific devices) that can be used as well for preparation and notes.
MemberNovember 29, 2018 at 4:02 pm
Hi everyone, thank you so much for your help! I will definitely try out your ideas with my student, I teach a few other autistic children too so I’m sure the tips will also help me with them🙂
MemberNovember 29, 2018 at 4:02 pm
I can completely identify with your post. I’ve had a couple of pupils over the years with similar behaviour characteristics that you outline and it can be really hard in lessons! A couple of things that worked for me were having a plan of activities that I wanted to cover but then letting the pupil lead the activity whenever I sensed resistance. I felt the slightest amount of pressure would lead to disengagement so I tried really hard to remove this. It was amazing how much they seemed to achieve when I removed any expectations and only gave minimum guidance.
With one pupil I had the opportunity to note how their behaviour changed depending on who was around. There were three variations (all took place in my home).
1 Mum with younger sibling in next door room (door open)
2 Dad with younger sibling in next door room (door open)
3 Mum alone in lesson room
The pupil’s behaviour was worse with Mum being in the room during the lesson and there were tears both times even though I had changed nothing in terms of teaching approach. More data would be needed to prove this but I think it added loads more pressure to have Mum in the room with us. Might be something to think about changing.
Remember that you’re probably making a real contribution to your pupils life even though it might feel difficult sometimes.
I hope that helps and good luck🙂
MemberNovember 29, 2018 at 4:08 pm
Personally I would make tasks very quick. Sometimes being pace doesn’t allow those with a learning difficulty to misbehave. Try shortening what you would like them to complete such as play 1 bar, then the second bar, etc and then as a plenary they can play what they have completed it. You could try breaking it up with other types of games as well so the focus won’t be based on sitting or holding the instrument.
I have only taught 2 Children with Autism (Mild) the second one
liked coming to see my Yamaha U3 and he also liked my house!
He was very placid at that time as long as he was on his own with me(of course he also liked me!) We got on very well and he
eventually did the first MTB Exam and got 83% (A Silver Award)
After this he gave up and never came back! He said he wanted to do the exams where you didn’t have to go to a Exam Centre,
ie in a different building, and that’s why we did the MTB exam.
His mother just said he wanted to play outdoors on his new bike!
MemberNovember 29, 2019 at 4:08 pm
Dont let students make your life a misery.Prioritise your own mental health. Does the next students lesson sufer because you are exhausted ? You are not a social worker on 50 k a year. If someone doesnt want to learn its time to suggest finding a more approprate teacher with specialised skills.
I have a similar student at the moment, and have worked at a learning disability school in the past.
To help me manage my current “difficult” student, I actually met with her mum out of work to discuss her condition and tactics to handle it. It was very useful to come up with a plan of action, and now we’re pretty good at managing her outbursts.
Generally, I’ve found it’s all about personal connection.
Try and find a way to understand and bond with them even if it’s over something simple like a basic melody or song they enjoy. Then when things start getting out of hand try and steer it back to the melody/song and back to having fun. Try and distract with fun exercises, and don’t be afraid to go off the beaten track, since you’ll only find out what works with this person through trial and error.
The most important thing in my opinion though is trying to understand how they feel and finding common ground.
Hope this helps, and good luck. It’s very hard not to let a learning difficulty become a teaching difficulty!