One of the essential tenets of Suzuki Philosophy is that “every child can.” That phrase is one of my teaching mantras. I constantly think about it.
Every child can.
Every child can learn to play the violin. It’s my job to figure out how to make that happen. I am so glad that I get to teach private lessons because that means I can completely tailor the lesson to the child who is standing in front of me. The child who can learn to play.
Every single one of my students has had something that is tricky for them. It might be staying focused through a lesson, hating the feeling of the string underneath their fingertips, low muscle tone that makes it hard to keep their violin up, or inconsistent practicing at home.
Learning to play the violin is never simple. Everyone has a challenge.
I know that many teachers ask parents very explicitly if their kid has ever been diagnosed with ADD, sensory processing disorder, or whatever the problem may seem to be. Some teachers encourage parents to seek out a diagnosis that would explain a behavior.
This can make a lot of sense. It is helpful to know the background of what a child is experiencing so you can give them what they need. It is helpful to know a diagnosis so you can work in unison with therapies they may be doing at school or at home.
However, I have decided not to do that. Some of my studio parents tell me, but I do not ask.
When you’ve been struggling with your child, it can feel like a relief to have a name for that struggle. Having a diagnosis can be essential in advocating for your child in a school setting.
On the other hand, sometimes having a diagnosis places children in a box that is difficult to escape. Sometimes, people hear autism or hyperactive and they think they know what that child is like. And they don’t. Sometimes, children need a break from being thought of in just one way. They need a chance to be themselves, with all the wonderful strengths and weaknesses they have. I want to give that to them.
Although I believe strongly in not giving in to stereotypes, I know they may subconsciously affect what I think about a student. So I do not ask. If I do know, I work hard to confront my subconscious stereotypes and truly get to know the student in front of me.
Families deserve privacy if they want it.
A parent should get to decide whether to seek medical treatment or diagnosis for their child, not their music teacher.
Here are some of the things that I do when I am concerned about a student:
Ask them about their school teacher. What do they love about their teacher? What is tricky at school? This can give me some insight into their learning style. If a child is not old enough to articulate this, I ask their parent.
Trial and error. I can learn so much about a student just by trying different types of lessons. Do they need a lot of movement breaks? Do they thrive on routine; the same order of lesson activities every week? Is this child soothed by a gentle touch on the elbow? Do they shy away from all physical touch? Does mindful breathing or a silly joke help them relax into lessons? I take notes of these kinds of things, and review them before their next lesson.
Find their superpower. When lessons get frustrating, it can be easy to hyperfocus on what is wrong. Usually the tricky stuff comes with some amazing abilities. Sometimes the busiest student tells the funniest jokes. Sometimes the quietest, least responsive student is amazingly introspective and self-corrects very well. Every child has a superpower. If a teacher can find it and continually point it out, it can lead to more confidence and trust.
Develop your own growth mindset and teach growth mindset at every lesson. Just because lessons are a struggle right now, doesn’t mean they always will be. You can learn how to be a better teacher. They can find a way through their own struggles. Nothing stays the same.
I may not ask parents about a diagnosis, but I do try to learn as much as I can about common childhood disorders. A few years ago, I read a book about ADD to gain empathy for an adult family member, and it completely changed the way I taught every violin student I had. Since then I have tried to do better about learning about the struggles of those around me. The most important thing I learned was that I am not an expert on someone else’s experience. I may think I know a lot about something, but they will always know more about their own experience. My job is to listen and love them. Period.
What kinds of questions do you ask a student to get to know them? How do you tailor lessons to a child’s individual needs?