How to Engage Piano Students with Sensory Processing Disorder

How to Engage Piano Students with Sensory Processing Disorder

engage piano students

This post in the last in our series on Special Needs Piano Teaching. I hope that you’ve found this month’s conversations and articles helpful in your teaching. Please let other teachers know where to find this information and share links to it so everyone can benefit.

Today’s guest post is from Kristen Raney, who talks about her experience as a mother and teacher of students with Sensory Processing Disorder which can include Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia and other conditions. 

How do you engage piano students with these disorders? Kristen’s got some great ideas to share with you including talking to parents while letting children explore the room in their first lesson, the kinds of interview questions she asks, the importance of routine in teaching SPD students, resources, links and heaps more. 

Thanks for your post, Kristen! – Tim.

Are you curious about accepting students with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) into your studio, but have no idea what to expect or what accommodations you might need to make?

I confess that before I had my son, who has SPD, I did not accept students with Autism, ADHD, or SPD because I had no idea how to teach them.  I simply didn’t know anything more than the stereotypes and was afraid to get out of my comfort zone.

Now that I’ve started teaching my son, here’s what I’ve learned.

Have a meet and greet with the parents & student in your studio before lessons start

Any child with a sensory disorder (which can include Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia, and more) will have completely different sensory needs.  Never assume that because you’ve taught one child with a sensory disorder that you can do the exact same with another.

This is why it’s so important to have a meeting with the parents & student before you begin lessons.  Begin by letting the student explore the room at his or her own pace, free of other children and distractions.

While the child explores the room, ask the parent:

  • How does your child respond to sound?
  • Are there any textures he does not like?
  • Where is she in the development of fine and gross motor skills in comparison to her peers?
  • How comfortable is he with crossing the midline? (The midline is an imaginary line that runs vertically through the centre of your body.  The ability to cross the midline affects how well the child will be able to co-ordinate two handed activities.)
  • What sensory stimulation does she typically seek?  Ex: spinning, rolling, swinging.
  • Does he have a special interest that if incorporated into lessons would make him feel more comfortable?
  • What soothing strategies work best for your child and are you comfortable with me using them?  For example, a small child may need you to apply deep pressure, where an older child may be able to do the soothing strategy themselves.
  • What are your child’s strengths?

Once you have those answers, you can start forming your basic lesson plan.

Keep your lessons structured the same way every time

Routine equals confidence and relaxation.  A child with SPD will be in a constant state of defence mode and unable to learn unless you stick to routine and allow them sensory breaks if needed.  For more information on defence mode, check out Asperger Experts.

In the beginning, the child may not respond to the routine you’ve created.  Don’t give up!  Keep the same routine for at least a month before you decide that it doesn’t work.

Your routine might look like this:

  • Greeting
  • Finger strength exercises
  • Song #1
  • Sensory break
  • Theory game
  • Song #2
  • Sticker & Goodbye

Keep your greeting the same way every time.  If you are teaching a younger child, you may want to sing a welcome song together.

More resources & tips

Most children with SPD will need some extra help with fine motor skills and crossing the midline.  You can incorporate these two needs in the spots for finger strength exercises and theory games.  Make activities where the child needs to pick up small pieces.  Ask the child to play a high note with the left hand and vice versa.

To get more ideas, check out blogs by occupational therapists (OT) such as OT Mom Learning Activities or Mama OT.  My son’s OT recommends the book Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Beil.  I personally have found it very helpful.

Not all children will need a sensory break every lesson, especially as they get used to you and your routine.  Sensory breaks can involve spinning, deep pressure, or a run around the room.  You and the parents will have decided what the options are in your initial meeting.

If you need to change something in the routine, remind the child at least 2 weeks in advance, and give them warning within the lesson that the change is happening.  Remind them at the beginning of the lesson, as well as five minutes before the change.  For some children this will be enough, and others won’t be able to handle it.

If you promise something, you MUST keep your promise.  In my experience, neurotypical children can generally understand if you forget, but those with SPD are more likely not to.  My child tends to talk about a promise not kept for months.  It’s not to make me feel bad, but because he has trouble processing why the thing that was supposed to happen did not.

Balance Sensory Stimulation

I am a Music For Young Children teacher, and one of the things I love about the program is that it really balances all of the senses.  Whether you are a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, there is something in the lesson plan that will speak to the way you learn.

In some children with SPD problematic sensations can change from week to week, and in others they are more consistent.  Your lessons will need to balance all three of these senses to avoid sensory overload and cover the senses they learn best with.


So how do you do this?  Build chords with lego, hop on the lines and spaces of a floor keyboard or grand staff, colour code your notes, patterns, or chords—really, the possibilities are endless.

You can also incorporate the child’s favourite object.  If the child likes dinosaurs, have her find all the D’s with a plastic dinosaur.  He could run trains on the correct line or space when doing note drills.  She could make her doll hop out the rhythm dictation.

For some children with SPD, varying the senses used might be enough and they will not need a sensory break.  Others will.  If needed, allow the child to spin, jump, use deep pressure, or whatever their calming strategy is when things get overwhelming.

Manage Your Expectations

If you are teaching your first student with SPD, expect a steep learning curve.  The good news is, once you know what to expect, it’s not that hard to adjust accordingly.

Don’t expect eye contact or a response to a question immediately, especially in the first couple of months of lessons.  As a neurotypical person, I don’t personally know what it’s like to have SPD, but this is my elevator pitch of what it might be like.

Imagine you’re going for a walk in the winter.  The wind hits your face and it feels like knives.  Your jacket is too loose and the fabric too scratchy, Your boots are a bit too tight and the crunch of snow under your feet is loud.  All minor annoyances, but you can still get to your destination.  Now multiply all of this by 5. Suddenly these minor annoyances become unbearable.  You can’t possibly focus on walking when all of your senses are screaming that everything is too much.

So wait that extra second for the child to answer, and don’t take it personally if you rarely get eye contact.  The student just needs a little bit more time to sort through the wind & scratchy fabric before he or she can process the question.

Things that you or I take for granted may take a child with SPD longer to accomplish. For example, curved fingers, correct hand pressure at the piano, or being able to sit for long periods of time.

This is not to say that you can’t work up to any of these skills, you just need to break them down into smaller bits and take more time.

Sensory Processing Disorders

You may need to work up to a 30 minute lesson.  Depending on the age and abilities of the child, start at 10 minutes and work from there.

Same goes for practice. Encourage parents to start with 1 or 2 minutes and work up to the goal duration. When a child is beginning piano lessons, I always err on the side of too much praise. You want to develop a happy habit of practice right from the start.

Checkmarks & task pictures can be very motivating! Music for Young Children has a homework sheet with checkmarks for every item on every day of the week that my son loves. When I keep the checklist out where he can see it, we can get a 10 minute practice in instead of 2. (He’s only 4 1/2.) You can easily incorporate this idea into your own studio, and your neurotypical students will also find it useful.

Children with SPD can and do succeed! It just takes understanding and workarounds to make it happen.

Disclaimer: I am not an OT or specialist in Sensory Processing Disorders, just a music teacher and mom to a son with SPD.  This article is based on my own research and experiences with my son.

Have anything to add? What strategies do you use to get your students with SPD to succeed? Please leave a comment below.

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Kristen Raney

Kristen Raney teaches voice, piano, Music for Young Children, and choir in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She is the director of Newman Sounds, a show choir at the College of St. Thomas More at the University of Saskatchewan. You can find her blogging about music at Music Teacher Mentor, or prairie living at Shifting Roots.

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  1. I realized from working with a student with SPD that I am constantly struggling with sensory overload during my work day. By the last few hours of my teaching day I’m so overwhelmed that I want to flee! These are such great suggestions and I wish I had learned to respect my own sensitivities at an earlier age. I’m finding it difficult to manage as an adult. I’ve suffered from chronic pain since I started teaching piano. 😭

  2. Thanks for the article Kristen. I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 6. I’m in my 40’s now and I’m still needing to take daily ADHD medication. I have done very well both personally and professionally and can attribute much of my success to the piano. I started playing when I was about 8 years old. It was difficult for me to focus on reading music, but I found that I was really good at playing by ear. I took lessons for about 5 years and hated them, but I would say they were helpful. But, not as helpful as being allowed to play by ear.
    So, if I had any advise for parents of ADHD children on the piano, I would say support the piano but don’t be overly strict. If they start playing by ear instead of reading the notes on paper, don’t stop this behavior.
    My parents were supportive. I would get in trouble often and grounded – sometimes sent to the room where we had our piano. Piano became my outlet, and helped with some of my challenges with ADHD. I still play the piano everyday (I’m actually really good) and it is because of the support I had when I was early in my life.

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