One Super Strategy for Teaching Piano To Children With Autism, ADHD or Behavioral Problems

At some point in our careers as piano teachers we will encounter piano students who need a different approach than most children. Today we’re going to share a strategy that will have a positive effect on how to teach piano to a child with Autism, ADHD or behavioral problems.

Teachers at my studio recently began teaching piano to two autistic children and, in my efforts to help those teachers structure their lessons appropriately, we came up with this solution that has been quite effective.

piano teaching pro

In the reading we did to help our new students, there was the common theme that Autistic children need routines, structure, and consistency, and that they learn best when presented with a visual schedule.  Providing opportunities for positive reinforcement for desirable behavior is key.

An Easy Visual Aid for Autistic Piano Students

What we came up with was incredibly easy to create and works like a charm!  Here’s how to create your own visual aid for the piano students who need it.

1)  Purchase a 7 day pill organizer from your local dollar store or pharmacy (see my photo above).

2) Separate your piano lesson into 4 clear parts and find a way to summarize your activities.  Mine are “Play for me”, “Theory games”, “Learn a new piece”, and “Review and polish”.

3) Print out labels for each of your 4 lesson parts and add 3 that say “Good listening”.

4)  Tape them to each of the 7 days on your pill case (the 4 lesson parts first and the 3 Good Listening at the end).

5)  Before your student arrives, “load” each of the compartments with a small, yet enticing sticker.

You’ll need to clearly explain to your student how the system works.  For each task they complete, they get to flip open the lid and collect their sticker (our students like to add to their collection on the front of their back and forth book).  When you “catch” them listening well, they get to open one of the 3 “Good Listening” compartments.  The stickers are only given out if you have cooperation for each task.  All 3 of the Good Listening stickers may not go out every week.

Be Consistent, Be Fair

This is really effective for students who need to visually see what is expected of them. Make sure to be fair, and to follow your own rules closely as your student will remember and become frustrated if their expectations for how the visual works aren’t followed.

I’ve also used this with students who need help focusing due to ADHD or simply because they are easily distracted or very active.  It’s small enough that I can pick it up as a gentle reminder, it’s intriguing enough that my students care to follow the rules and, if I choose the appropriate stickers, it’s really motivating for them.

Give it a try!  It is sure to make your life easier and your piano students’ piano lesson experience that much more enjoyable.

When writing The Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo one of our goals was to appeal to visual learners – to really motivate those students who need more than simply a piece to play each week.  Because of the graphic nature of this piano book, and because of the intriguing story line, even my most difficult students were motivated to practice and perfect these pieces.  It’s one of the most effective supplementary materials you will ever find!

21 Responses to One Super Strategy for Teaching Piano To Children With Autism, ADHD or Behavioral Problems

  1. Michelle says

    I want to say THANK YOU to you as both a parent of two boys with autism and adhd and as a teacher. As a parent, I have had other teachers say no too soon because the diagnosis scared them away. Ironically, my son’s cello teacher didn’t want to teach him because he needed help getting the cello out of the case. She saw him as a special needs child. However this was one area where the playing field was level, as he was already reading both clefs and had perfect pitch, and no behavior problems. Both boys have perfect pitch and are very musical. My second son has a wonderful band director who was so excited to teach my son. He is playing trombone by ear for now, but is doing great.

    As a teacher, I have been taught so much by my “special” kids. “Special” more so because they have made me a better teacher in coming up with strategies to help them learn. You’ll find a lot of what you use with special needs kids can be used with your neuro-typical students. Thanks again for writing on this topic.

  2. Tami says

    I loved this! I have taught autistic children and am currently working with an auditory sensory processing disorder, down’s syndrome, dyslexia, asperger’s, and ADHD. I wish all teachers realized what a joy it is to teach these children. :o) Thanks for sharing.

  3. Jeannie says

    I use a very similiar program. I found a piano currirulum — Beanstalk published by Hal Leonard — that already has the stickers. Since all the Lesson Book songs have two stickers, the students get the first sticker when they learn the new song. When they come back the next week and play the song, they get the second sticker. The theory book also has the sticker; the technique book has a sticker; therefore I keep the stickers in the folder with their lesson plan. The stickers match the songs and activity which save me a lot of time. The sudents like the music in this series. I put signs up in the piano room similiar to your signs on the pill container and the kids know when they play their music they get the sticker. Helps keep the student focused because when they start to ‘wander’, I can point to the sign and remind them. It is funny how a little sticker and a sign can make a big difference during the lesson. Routine is so important with special needs students.

  4. wendy says

    This is a wonderful article. Thank you for posting it. Teaching each and every student needs a strategy. We all have special needs.

  5. says

    This is great ~ Thank you, again!!

    I also like to use the app “I earned that” for when they accomplish goals and are good listeners.
    The reward puzzle in the app can be customized for any number of pieces, and you can have a picture of the prize too.

      • Anita says

        Wonderful ideas! This is just what I am needing as I have a student with ADHD. I plan on trying the visual schedule and combining it with the “I earned that” app. Thank you everyone for sharing ideas.

      • Su says

        I also use push buttons(like that Easy Staples button)
        I found them in a dollar store – they each play a tune and students are entitled to push when they do well.

  6. says

    Thank you for the article! I have a wonderful students with autism and often use diagrams, where I try to show the way of melody or rhythm. This is very interesting way to explain hard material or some things that are not easy understandable in the initial stage.

  7. Angie says

    Thank you for posting this. I too am the mother of two special needs boys. One has autism and one has adhd. Both boys are musically talented but really require routine and lots of praise from their music teachers to progress well. Finding good motivators/rewards is extremely important. Don’t be afraid to experiment. My one son is obsessed with matchbox cars, maps, and old country music. Nothing else motivates him. He has never responded to stickers. His guitar teacher will play one of his favorite songs with him at the end of the lesson if he has earned it, or he gets to play with a very special car for the day if he has good listening at the lesson. My other son and a couple of my special needs students will willingly work and listen in the lessons for small erasers shaped as cars or animals. Remember that some children with autism have VERY narrow interests -find out what they love and use it as a reward. Also, when creating the pillcase lesson schedule remember that some students require pictures instead of words to show the different tasks to accomplish in a lesson. That pillcase is a very good idea that I am looking forward to trying.

  8. Norma says

    I am open for any of your tips for teaching an Aspergers ADHD 8 year old boy. he is very bright, but the ADHD is the issue.

  9. I need a piano teacher for my autistic son says

    My autistic son aged 14 is attending a special school and I need a piano good teacher for him.
    We reside in Harrow, about 15 minutes walk from
    Harrow and Wealdstone.

  10. Alicia says

    Hi Andrea.

    I will be teaching my 1st Autism student and am really glad that you took the time to write this article! It has helped me a lot. Thanks also for the ideas!

  11. says

    As a teacher, make sure to ask the parent for their input. They can provide valuable information regarding their individual child’s strengths and challenges. Every child on the Autism spectrum is unique and has different needs, so don’t assume that a particular strategy will work equally well (or at all) with every child. When I started teaching a student on the autism spectrum, I had also read about the visual schedule for autistic students. I made picture cards for this student as visual clues for the structure of the lesson, but she told me flat out that she didn’t want to use them because they were distracting to her. (The pill minder with stickers might be a different story however–I am definitely going to try it!) I was very grateful that this student’s mom was willing to share lots of helpful information with me that was specific to her child, including how to be alert to signals that her daughter was close to a meltdown (due to frustration), and the fact that her daughter’s emotional and social development was several years behind her chronological age. Just a reminder that parents are sometimes the best resource for teachers.

  12. Karen Van Sickle says

    I got an inquiry last week about teaching an 8 year old with aspergers…Mom was very forthright with me and is willing to come into lessons. I think I will give it a try!

  13. says

    Thank you for posting this! I just made something similar from a file folder. I cut sections into the folder and labeled them. We added the stickers to the folder after each activity. My student loved it!


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