Kansas Music Review
Spring Issue 2014-15

Notes From Your Editor
Steve Oare, Editor
Kansas Music Review
Teaching Special Needs: A Parent's Perspective

This spring issue of the Kansas Music Review relates directly to the KMEA strategic plan, but it especially hits home for me as a teacher and as a parent. We didn't recognize it at first. We had two beautiful little children, 22 months apart. The concern began when our youngest was ten months old and still not sitting up. The doctor diagnosed it as hypertonia, or slow muscle development, but we soon found that her cognition wasn't developing like her big brother's did either. People kept telling us she would catch up, but the gap between Rebecca and the 'normal' kids grew wider and wider. Soon, the label of developmental delay turned into cognitive impairment. Others, who were unaware of the politically correct label, called it retardation.

My hope as the editor of the KMR, and as a parent of a learning disabled daughter, is that this special focus issue will give you insights that will help you care for people with disabilities and to share with them the incredible gift of music. Each of the articles in this issue specifically addresses that purpose. I think you will find that the advice given by the authors is actually great advice for all learners, not just those with a label. It's simply good teaching.

Julia Heath-Reynolds and Shaun Popp lead off the list of articles as they discuss proactive strategies for including students in the music program, stressing that the key step to inclusion is to learn about the student, his capabilities, and his needs. Once you do this, you can choose or create effective proactive adaptations for the student and for the classroom. Christy Todd's article discussing inclusion in the choral classroom and our own Kris Brenzikofer's similar article for instrumental classrooms are both chalk-full of great insights and strategies for teachers with performing ensembles. I think you will love the video embedded in the Todd article. Next, Ellary Draper presents multiple ways in which teachers may address the ever present issue of assessment within the music classroom, especially as it relates to students with disabilities. Finally, we include a reprint of an article by Mary Adamek, Alice-Ann Darrow, and Judith Jellison that reviews five important initiatives in education and their impact on teaching children with disabilities.

While these articles offer great advice from a teacher's perspective, they lack the perspective of a parent. What do parents want? What do they want you to know about their children? What motivates their behavior in relation to your subject? A great deal of research has been undertaken in this area, and I think I can boil it down to these few basic ideas:
  1. A label does not say it all. Every child is different; therefore it is unwise to prescribe adaptations for a child solely based on the label he or she has been given. While understanding the basic characteristics and needs of children within diagnosed umbrellas is a great place to start, we must understand that each child has a different personality, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and a different personal history which has as much or more effect on behavior and achievement as a label does. I think we were lucky because Rebecca has no diagnosed syndrome or label. Therefore, her teachers have no preconceived notions and assumptions about her capabilities and potential. Instead, they simply get to know her and make decisions based on that knowledge.
  2. Communicate with other teachers. Other teachers have instructed the children in your class with special needs. It is important to talk with past teachers and current teachers and support staff from other areas to understand a child's capabilities and needs. The knowledge gained from the collaboration may help you prevent issues from occurring and create appropriate adaptations once they are encountered.
  3. Make it as inclusive as feasible. Direct contact between special needs students and their average peers positively influences attitudes toward individuals with disabilities, decreases prejudices, and provide positive models for the students with disabilities (Jellison & Taylor, 2007). Further, students with special needs want to be like everyone else (Gallagher, et al., 2000) and need socialization skills (Westling, 1996). Within the last week, I have seen my daughter play a basketball game, play her violin in a concert, and participate in a beauty pageant for women with special needs (yes, it was a busy week!). In each of these events, I witnessed the extreme joy on the faces of the participants simply doing things that other kids do. On the other hand, I have heard of children in wheel chairs who were separated from the rest of the students during concerts and students not allowed to perform, mainly due to lack of communication with the child and the parent.
  4. Some children need adaptations to be successful. Parents may believe that regular education teachers are untrained, ignorant, or even negative toward dealing with their children (Gallagher, et al., 2000). They want quality services and meaningful instruction (Westling, 1996) that is flexible enough to help them be successful but to be as inclusive as possible. In Rebecca's case, since she cannot read music, her teachers have made recordings of the concert music for her to practice at home (I'm listening to her playing along with a recording as I write!) and have teamed her up with a buddy to help her organize her instrument case and write notes home regarding homework and announcements. With this help, Rebecca can positively contribute to the ensemble. As Christy Todd stated in her article, "Every student matters. How can you differentiate performance to provide opportunities for all students to be successful?"
  5. Parents often feel the stigma of having a child who is not 'normal' and often blame themselves for this (Moses, 2010). They worry about exposure to chemicals during pregnancy, a bad gene pool, bad parenting, or a negative family environment. Studies suggest that greater the parental self- blame leads to lower psychological wellbeing in the parent and the child (Moses, 2010). Therefore, for the good of our students, we must provide emotional support and help parents look toward the future rather than help them beat themselves for things that may - or may not - have happened in the past.
  6. Parents are their children's best advocates. However, dealing with a special needs child is new territory for them, so we need advice regarding the resources available, legal rights and responsibilities schools and parents have. Depending on the disability, we may also need direction when it comes to planning for adulthood and ensuring a positive lifestyle for our offspring (Westling, 1996). Please be patient with them if they come across pushy while trying to navigate the system. Music teachers can aid in this area by informing parents of other musical opportunities for their children in the community and providing ideas for adapting musical activities to allow for successful musical growth. I have to admit that I remained blissfully ignorant of these issues as a band teacher - until I encountered them as a parent.
  7. Music can be a powerful therapy for students with disabilities - and for those without disabilities. I was reminded of this yesterday at the Wichita "Miss Unstoppable" pageant. A young lady approached the microphone to speak and it took her nearly a minute to say her name because of her stuttering disability. A few minutes later, she stepped up to the microphone again; this time to sing a song while her mom accompanied her on piano. She sang beautifully, with no sign of a stutter. Others sang or played piano or violin, and though none of them would meet the criteria for a "I" at festival, they demonstrated through their bodies and their huge smiles the power in the music. Imagine what life could be like for these young ladies if they didn't have music! We each have the opportunity to bring this blessing to all students with or without special needs.
  8. You need to know how much parents appreciate your help and the compassion of other students. We know our children can be difficult - we live with them! When we see teachers and other students reach out to our children rather than ignore them or hide from them, we feel blessed. As we dropped Rebecca off in the orchestra room before last Tuesday's concert, we saw three other students give her a high five and ask her how she was doing. Then at Wednesday's Special Olympics basketball game, the varsity boy's team (who just won the state tournament) sat in the stands to cheer the team while the high school pep band played all game long. After the game, Rebecca gave hugs to other students from school who simply came to watch the game and cheer on their schoolmates. She felt like she belonged and her parents felt blessed knowing their child was loved and respected by people who were not being paid to love and respect her.

Finally, every child has a role and purpose in this world, though some may not meet the Common Core goal of career and college readiness. They add to our society as they teach us to forgive and to show compassion to others. They contribute to our value system, reminding us to take the time to know one another, to enjoy the moment, and to count our blessings. It is quite interesting to see how the people who help these children often say that they were blessed more than the child they were helping. So, from a parent of a special needs child, thank you for what you do. We know they're not always easy to teach. In fact, we know they can be frustrating at times. But we appreciate the love you give them and the effort you put forth to make their education as meaningful for them as you do for all students.

Gallagher, P.A., Floyd, J.H., Stafford, A.M., Taber, T.A., Brozovic, S.A. & Alberto, P.A. (2000). Inclusion of Students with Moderate or Severe Disabilities in Educational and Community Settings: Perspectives from Parents and Siblings. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 35(2), 135-147.
Judith A. Jellison and Donald M. Taylor (2007). Attitudes toward Inclusion and Students with Disabilities: A Review of Three Decades of Music Research. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 172, 9-23.
Moses, T. (2010). Exploring Parents' Self-Blame in Relation to Adolescents' Mental Disorders, Family Relations, 59(2),103-120.
Westling, D. L. (1996). What do parents of children with moderate and severe mental disabilities want? Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 31(2), 86-114.
The Kansas Music Review is the official publication of the Kansas Music Educators Association,
a federated State Association of the National Association for Music Education.