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Music Lessons and home Practice for the Child with ADHD

“Write it down. I want it on the record that I am doing it under duress!” My 10-year-old son’s new psychologist had just asked him, “Do you like playing piano?”

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Extra-curricular activities have been a regular area of “negotiation” in my home for years. Mostly, we’re happy to follow our kids’ leads in terms of what sports or activities they do or don’t do, but they must stick with it until the end of term (or season) so that they honour both their commitment to their team, as well as respecting that we have spent money on the activity. Children with ADHD often find it extremely hard to stick to long term endeavours. They will often give up when things get too hard or if they need to practice. So, in my 10-year history of being a mummy, I’ve been a soccer mum, a karate mum, a swimming mum, a gymnastics mum, a ballet mum and an athletics mum.

However, when it comes to learning an instrument, I am not as flexible. There are so many benefits to learning a musical instrument1 that I have made it a non-negotiable in our house. Our kids must play an instrument, learn to read music, and regularly practise. So, to add to my Mummy Resume, I am also a piano mum, a flute mum, a recorder mum, and a soon to be a drum mum.

So, knowing that learning a musical instrument has huge benefits for kids with ADHD, how do we get over the initial panic of “How on earth am I going to get my child to agree to lessons, concentrate during lesson, and to practice during the week?!” I’m so glad you asked!

Below, I list my top tips to help your child commit to learning and practising a musical instrument, based on both research and experience.

BE HONEST

Parents – It’s not going to take the teacher long to work out that your child struggles to pay attention in lessons. Some hints might be: Your child absconding from the piano stool mid song to show them their latest gymnastics routine, using the flute as a twirling baton, or staring blankly at a piece of music they have been working on for the past month and then burst into tears.

Make sure you’re honest with the teacher prior to commencing lessons. Having an open dialogue can help the teacher understand how to work more effectively with your child, and show more understanding and empathy when things go wrong. Talk to them about what difficulties your child may have, and what has worked for them in the past. Negotiate your presence and level of support in the lesson. Some teachers might not be willing to change their lesson routines, so it’s worth finding that out upfront so you can find another teacher who is.

Teachers – It’s just as important for the teacher to be honest with the parents. Remember that you might have a child in front of you who is “doing the lesson under duress”. Be open to discussion with the parents. Brainstorm ideas together to improve the lessons, and be honest if you feel you aren’t able to provide what this child needs.

USE A VISUAL SCHEDULE

Researchers have shown that people with ADHD perceive the passing of time differently than neurotypical children. Prof Russell Barkley calls this “time blindness”. If a child with ADHD is engaged in a task that they find rewarding and fun, two hours can seem like 10 minutes. However, the opposite is also true: if they are doing something they are not enjoying, time passes excruciatingly slowly. A half hour music lesson could feel like a 12-hour ordeal that will never end. And let’s face it, sometimes lessons are tough to get through – even for people who really enjoy playing!

A visual schedule is a great way that kids with ADHD can track the progression of the lesson or the practice session. It’s a reminder that this will end, and help children see the time passing with each activity. Getting the child involved to actively take off the corresponding visual cue card as they have finished the activity is great for motivation.

Teachers – I have included a FREE printable Visual Schedule for you to use in lessons. This free resource is set up for 4 activities per lesson. Simply laminate it, put Velcro dots on the schedule and activity cards and you have a chart you can use many times over! (I have also made a full printable resource here with additional visual schedule and lots of extras for only $3!)

Parents – I have also included a FREE printable Visual Schedule for you to use for homework. This free resource is also set up for 4 activities per home practice session. Also check out the full printable resource for only $3.

START WITH THEIR STRENGTHS AND SANDWICH THE MOST DIFFICULT TASKS.

Research suggests that to get the most productivity out of your tasks, you should start with the hardest one first, putting off the easier ones for later (M. Kouchaki, Associate Professor of Management and Organisations at North-western University). In the long run, knocking over the most difficult tasks, can give you a great feeling of satisfaction, less fatigue overall and more productivity. Not to mention, that feeling of dread will not be hanging over you, because you keep putting it off.

However, as we know, ADHD brains don’t always function in the same way as neurotypical brains. Starting with the most difficult task is more than likely going to start an epic battle of task avoidance, reduced motivation, tantrums and adding another heavy lump of poor self-worth onto a child that already may be feeling they aren’t ‘good’ at anything.

Children with ADHD struggle with motivation and difficulty getting started on tasks. This is intensified when the task is difficult or boring. This is not because the child with ADHD is lazy or defiant. It is not a lack of willpower. It may look like this through our “behavioural lens” but we need to understand the underlying brain chemistry.

When something is interesting our brain is flooded with dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical messenger that passes along networks in the reward system of our brain. We are not able to voluntarily control the change, but it occurs. The higher the levels of dopamine, the more motivated we are to do that task again. Children with ADHD have a deficit in the dopamine transfer system of their brain. As each neuron passes along the dopamine, some of that dopamine gets dropped (i.e. poorer re-uptake of dopamine), so they will need higher levels of dopamine to get the same level of motivation. If we can trigger the child with ADHD’s motivation system by giving them a quick win, their motivation will increase, because the brain is still flooded with dopamine, which will help with motivation.

Teachers – If you start your lesson with something fun and easy to achieve, you will see an increase in motivation for the harder task to come later. This will quickly deplete again when you engage in the hard or boring activity, so following this with an easy or enjoyable activity will give the child with ADHD the best chance to be motivated to complete all tasks you require in the lesson.

Another tip is to always finish on a fun and rewarding task. My children’s piano teacher finishes our lessons with a note reading game on the iPad called Staff Wars (an app available on Apple Store and Google Play). It lets them leave on a ‘high’ and can assist in motivating them to return for their next lesson and practice at home.

Parents – The same is true for home practice activities – you might want to start with a fun and engaging activity before moving into the more difficult or ‘boring’ tasks. Talk to your child’s teaching about how to schedule your child’s practice in this manner.

PROVIDE SMALL, FREQUENT PRAISE & REINFORCEMENT.

Contrary to common belief, rewards, incentives and reinforcements DO work for children with ADHD. However, these need to be stronger and more frequent than for children who are neurotypical. (This also has in part, to do with dopamine!) Children with ADHD have significant difficulty delaying gratification and would rather a small reward now, than a large reward later. One of the difficulties in learning music is that sometimes the improvement is slow. It’s often hard to feel motivated by a small improvement in a song each week. Often kids with ADHD lose interest if they can’t play the song perfectly right now!

Teachers – Use frequent, immediate rewards, such as saying an enthusiastic “YES!” when they play a part of the piece that they have struggled with in the past or giving immediate feedback when they have played a song. Even if they played it badly or made no improvement from the week before, give them some sort of positive praise! “WOW! You played that part loudly like the music said to! Great! This time, do that part loudly again just like you did, and let’s try this part softly.”

Use a reward chart throughout the whole lesson and give them frequent rewards for their attention, effort, sitting posture – anything you can reward – just because! I have included a free reward chart for you to use (with more reward charts in the purchasable downloadable package).

Use technology to assist in rewards. iPad games for learning the note names (Staff wars, for example) is a great app that makes a mundane, yet necessary, task fun and rewarding. Even having a very small break in between lesson activities by playing one round of a short game can be great. I often use Bugs and Buttons in my clinic as a reward: a bug squishing game that goes for less than one minute per round.

Parents & Teachers – I encourage parents and teachers to negotiate about how to use reward charts. Younger children may find that getting a reward chart with 10 cool stickers is enough of a reward. Older children may need a more tangible reward. For example: Get 10 stickers in the lesson and you can get a small treat on the way home (think McDonald’s soft serve cone, a lucky dip from your “treasure trove”, or a quick stop at the park on their way home).

Parents – You will know what motivates your child. Negotiate with them. Last year, to encourage my kids to stick with their music lessons, they each worked towards a large reward at the end of the year. My girls chose a Build a Bear each and my son chose a LEGO set. However, a little reward was given after each lesson to ensure continued motivation.

BREAK DOWN BIG TASKS INTO SMALLER TASKS & TEACH PATTERNS

It is well established that there is a working memory deficit in people with ADHD.4 Working memory is basically our brain temporarily storing small amounts of information required for a task and being able to quickly use and manipulate that information for the task in front of us.

Think of working memory as a small basket you carry. All the pieces of information you need in order to undertake a specific task go into the basket. However, this basket can’t be stretched or made bigger, and the basket our kids with ADHD are carrying might actually be a smaller basket than their neurotypical peers have. So, for every little bit of information that is added to the basket, another piece of information might actually fall out. We need to learn to adjust our teaching and facilitate learning with the working memory abilities that the individual child is presenting with. If we can structure our environment of learning in a way that can reduce the working memory load (the number of things they need to carry in their basket), we can greatly assist the child to learn.

Teachers – Use colour coding with textas or stickers to show the child patterns in music. My daughter with ADHD, learned to play Jingle Bells this way, and it greatly reduced the stress of a long song, coming down to 3-4 patterns repeated in the music.  

Have a printed glossary of terms or musical symbols in a place the child can see. This way when you ask the child what a symbol or term means, they can find that information without having to recall that information from their working memory.

Photocopy a piece of music and cut it up. Only give them 1 line or section to practice for that week. Each week, add another line to the first line and soon they will be playing the whole song. Children with working memory difficulties, often find it difficult to “keep their place”, by reducing the amount of information on the page it’s like using a huge neon sign pointing to where they need to focus their attention.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Children with working memory difficulties aren’t incapable of retaining and recalling information, however, they will need much more repetition to learn a task than a child with a fully intact working memory. If we think about this in terms of music learning, skills such as practicing the names of the notes, how many beats we hold notes for, the definition of musical terms, the rhymes that we learn to learn to read sheet music are going to be more challenging to learn for them. Flash cards are a great way to practice these. There are flash cards available in the music resource or available here for Hal Leonard cards.

I love the quote by Bobby Ronson, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” Children with ADHD, with working memory deficits, will need to practice more to make something permanent, but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen. But make sure you make the practice fun!

Parents – Make sure you follow up with these activities at home. A neurotypical child is not going to learn from a five-minute activity once a week, let alone a child with working memory deficits. They need regular, daily practice. Set aside some time each day and sit with the child while they practice. Children with ADHD are not going to be able to plan a practice session and stick with it if you aren’t there. You might even like to give technology tokens for screen time after each activity they practise – I’ve included these in the resource. Using fun little reinforcing games such as pop up pirate or beetle for example, can also maintain motivation during practice.

The golden rules of home practice: FUN, REWARD and REPEAT REPEAT REPEAT!

Thank you for sticking with me until the end – Let’s get ADHD Done Differently and fill the world with music.

References:

  • Benítez, M. A., Abrahan, V. M. D., & Justel, N. R. (2017). Benefits of Music Training in Child Development: A Systematic Review. Revista Internacional de Educacion Musical5(1), 61–69. https://doi.org/10.12967/RIEM-2017-5-p061-069
  • Fassbender, C., Schweitzer, J. B., Cortes, C. R., Tagamets, M. A., Windsor, T. A., Reeves, G. M., & Gullapalli, R. (2011). Working memory in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a lack of specialization of brain function. PloS one6(11), e27240. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027240

Further Reading

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0099868

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00389.x

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4207727/

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00926/full


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