As piano teachers, we wear many hats. School teachers often teach only one age group, or a few age groups. Piano teachers are usually expected to be able to teach from age 5 to 95! But as we all know, teaching a 5-year-old is much different from teaching a 15-year-old, or a 55-year-old. :)
In recently thinking about this challenge of being able to effectively teach various age levels and maturities, I decided to make a list of some of the things I’ve learned over the past few years about teaching young ages — I’m thinking, ages 6 and under. I learned some of these things from an Early Childhood Music course I took during grad school and various piano pedagogy courses — but I learned many of these things purely from experience. Here goes:
- Don’t ask questions that you don’t really want answers to. Examples: “Did you like that?” or “Do you want to try it on your own now?” Sometimes if given the option to opt out of something, children will say “no” simply because you’ve given them a choice. :) It’s better to make statements.
- Give them time to think. When you ask a question, wait for them to process and compose a response. Sometimes we ask questions and then blow right on without getting an answer. Young children need this think time. If you don’t really want to wait for an answer, then don’t ask the question in the first place.
- Only give them tasks and activities that you are 100% sure they will succeed at. Studies have shown that the most effective way to learn is to have a series of successive challenges, where each challenge is only slightly more challenging than the previous. Huge challenges often discourage students — especially when they are young children. Give them small challenges, so they experience many small successes as they learn. My mantra: Always set the student up for success.
- Give concise instructions. If you speak only a few choice words at a time, the student will really listen when you speak. In Dalcroze training, teachers are taught to give no more than a few words of instruction at any given time to children (I think the magic number is 6, if I’m remembering correctly). Sometimes, I find myself babbling when I teach, which can easily lose the child’s attention. I’m trying to teach myself to take a moment to think before I speak. Word choice is important. Challenge yourself to use a limited amount of words before an activity. It will really make you think about what you are saying!
- Be a motivator. A fellow teacher recently said to me: “One of the primary goals of a teacher is to be a motivator.” I think he’s right! Remember that the chief goal is not to get through X amount of pieces or concepts, but to motivate them to want to learn about music. If a child doesn’t “get” a concept on the first try, it’s okay! If you’ve nurtured their excitement about making music, you’ve still met your goal as a teacher that day.
- Model curiosity. Whenever I can, I phrase things as if we are experimenting: “Let’s find out what happens when we…” Student are always excited to find out what what exciting sounds they can make! Actually, this tip works for all ages, but is especially good with young ages in order to capture their attention and nurture a love of learning.
- Get off the bench! Break up sitting activities with activities that allow them to move around a little. Young students need to move! They should not be expected to sit for an entire half-hour lesson. Find or create your own interactive and movement activities that effectively teach the concepts you want them to learn.
- Experience, symbol, then name. Research studies have suggested that this progression is the most effective way to learn. I think this is especially true with young ages. Instead of starting with the terminology for a new concept, start with an activity that allows the student to experience the concept. Then, find an activity that shows then the symbol. Lastly, share the term with the student. This was something that was drilled in my early childhood music college course, but I was also reminded of it in a recent conference session by Marvin Blickenstaff.
- Reinforcement is the way young students will begin to remember things. Don’t assume they will necessarily remember new things after only the first introduction. In my experience, young children will often remember that they learned about the concept, but might not remember the name (which corresponds with the research studies mentioned in the previous post). Don’t make them feel bad for not remembering things the first time. Pleasantly refresh their memory. Strive to present concepts in a variety of ways, from different perspectives, to appeal to different types of learners.
Have any tips to add about working with young students? Leave them in the comments!