Sunday, October 21, 2012

How to Deal With a Challenging Piano Student

You hate to admit it, but you dread the hour when so-and-so enters your studio!  Longest 30 minutes ever!
Frustrated piano teacher at desk
"What I do with this
  - Bad attitude
  - Doesn't practice
  - Sighs when you reassign a piece
  - Doesn't finish their theory homework
  - Forgets all their books at home
  - Always has an excuse
  - Doesn't even have parents least not that you've ever met!  (in other words, not involved - not helpful)

Please don't give up on this student--either officially or subconsciously!  Behind every misbehavior is a child who is seeking a sense of belonging according to psychiatrist and educator Rudolf Dreikurs.  Use the categories below to identify the underlying message of your student's behavior and review the following solutions for each situation.

***Also, be sure to check out a summary of all four types of misbehavior and their solutions.***

Alex*: The Student Who Wants Attention
Alex acts annoying or immature
Alex feels he only belongs when
is receiving special attention.
Identifying the Problem
The student seeking attention may persist with annoying or immature behavior.  You may detect that Alex is performing far underneath his potential.  With Alex, the lack of progress and the seeming inability to complete homework as assigned is intentional (although subconscious) and serves as a cry for attention.

This is not usually a problem with private piano students because they already have your full attention.  However, if other environments in Alex's life cause him to act this way, he may continue the behavior out of habit or desperation.

Finding the Solution
Alex thinks that he is only important when he is keeping the adults in his life busy with him.  Avoid lecturing, reminding, coaxing or doing for Alex what you know Alex can do for himself.  Do not let yourself get annoyed or irritated.

Instead, redirect by involving Alex in tasks where he "does" and you "instruct."  Try working through theory pages together.  Try learning the first few measures of next week's assigned piece together.  Ask engaging questions, like: "what tempo do you think this part should be performed at?" or "how would you interpret this?"  Help Alex feel listened to even if that means using up 5 minutes at the beginning of the lesson to listen about his day at school.  Alex will be more likely to listen to you after you've actively listened to him.

You can be an important part of Alex's life filling a hole that may not be filled at home or school!  How's that for motivating you to endure those precious 30 minutes!

Betty*: The Student Who Wants to be the Boss
Betty says "You're not the boss of me!"
Betty feels she only
belongs when she
is in control.
Identifying the Problem
This student wants to be the one in control.  Betty may push your buttons by insisting that "you're not the boss of me" and she will not be told what to do.  Bear in mind, not all Bettys will say this out loud.  She may subtly defy your directions.  (Example: You instruct her to slow the piece down.  She says nothing, but plays just as fast if not faster.)

Finding the Solution
Betty thinks she is only important if she is in control and she does not know how to use power in socially useful ways.  Avoid either forcefully taking back the power you feel is due you, or giving in completely to her demands. 

Instead, give more control to Betty and calmly invite her to use it in useful ways.  Admit that you cannot make her do anything.  She is in control of her progress in piano lessons.  Be firm, yet kind.  She will respond positively if you treat her with respect.

Offer her limited choices.  "You may complete one page in your theory book this week, if you'd like.  Otherwise, you're welcome to catch up next week by completing two pages."  Invite her feedback.  "How many days of practice do you think will really help you succeed in piano this semester?"  Always encourage.

Ronald*: The Student Who Wants Revenge
Ronald acts out in destructive or hurtful ways
Ronald feels he doesn't belong so
he wants to hurt others as he
feels hurt.
Identifying the Problem
Ronald seems to have a chip on his shoulder.  He may lash out in ways you've never expected from a student.  He can be downright mean and may even hurt your feelings.  The truth is that he feels hurt (most likely not by you, but he cannot identify his feelings specifically enough to know this).  He may even whisper, "I hate you" or "I hate the piano" under his breath.  Ronald seems angry and he's out to get even!

Finding the Solution
Ronald subconsciously wants to hurt others as he feels hurt.  Avoid taking personal offense or letting yourself become disappointed or disgusted with Ronald.  And above all, avoid retaliating or punishing!  This will only start a revenge cycle that is hard to disengage.  

Instead, indentify his feelings.  "Your behavior tells me that you're angry [or you're hurt].  Can we talk about that?"  It's easy to feel like you're wasting a parent's money by using the lesson for "useless talk," but if it's necessary you'll be anything buy wasting time!  Actively and reflectively listen.  Apologize if appropriate.  It's hard to tell, but Ronal is very discouraged.  Encourage any progress, talents, strengths as you see them.

Glenda*: The Student Who Wants to Give Up
Glenda seems defeated and will not try
Glenda feels she will never
belong, so why try?
Identifying the Problem
Glenda may not say it out loud, but her non-verbal cues say, "Please, just leave me alone!"  She makes you want to give up on her because she's given up on herself.  She's an under-acheiver to say the least.  She doesn't bother practicing or completing assignments.  "Why try?" she thinks.  You may feel at a total loss to motivate Glenda to try harder.

Notice the difference between Alex and Glenda.  Both may seem immature or not living up to their potential, but Alex will respond positively when given extra attention because of his shortfalls.  Glenda, on the other hand, will retreat further and will make no effort to improve even with attention.

Finding the Solution
Glenda is defeated.  She does not feel she is able to belong even if she tries, so it's easier to convince her superiors not to expect anything of her.  Avoid giving up on her, expecting nothing from her, or doing things for her.

Instead, show faith in her talents and potential.  Avoid criticism or pity.  Set her up for success without doing it for her.  Take small steps with careful instruction and let her take the next small step on her own.  (Example: Do the first theory question slowly while explaining each step.  Do the next theory question by asking questions you know Glenda will be able to answer correctly.  Hand the pencil over and let her fill in the answer to the next question after you've come to a conclusion together.  Now let her try the next one by herself.)  

Glenda will also benefit from your heightened interest in her personal interests.  Make her feel unique, needed, able and enjoyable.

To Summarize Possible Solutions:

Alex Attention-Seeker
  - Redirect with student involvement
  - Ask engaging questions
  - Listen actively to what he has to say

Bossy Betty
  - Give more control with encouragement
  - Offer limited choices
  - Invite her feedback

Ronald Revenge-Seeker
  - Identify hurt feelings
  - Reflectively listen
  - Encourage strengths

Glenda Giver-Upper
  - Show faith & encouragement
  - Set up success using small steps
  - Take a personal interest

*All names have been changed to protect the innocent.

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