I don't know what to do with this student

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Hey everyone, I've got kind of a tough one here, maybe some of you with more experience can help me out.

I have a 6 year old boy who has been taking lessons from me for about 5 months now. While progress at times has been great, lots of times it is very slow. We are now repeating the same lesson for the 3rd week in a row. It's not because he's not capable of playing the material, he simply refuses to play during lessons. He'll play one song and then we just sit there while I basically beg and plead for him to play something else for me.

Today was about the final straw though. After sitting for 15 minutes, I finally stopped pussy footing around this kid and reminded him (sternly but not yelling) that I was the teacher and he needs to do what I ask him to do. He let loose with a string of swear words that I haven't heard since my college days sitting at the bar. I was appalled. With that I ended the lesson.

I know that I should probably just write this kid off, but I truly believe that somewhere in there is a kid who wants someone to believe in him (bad home situation), but I really feel like he's wasting my time and his mom's money. I've tried to talk to mom, and I believe she is trying, but I truly believe most of this is simply bad parenting.

Any suggestions as to the best way to handle this boy?

-- Busy Mom (tomuch2do@hotmail.com), March 26, 2001


Dear Busy Mom,

With students like this, I never plead or beg them to do anything. But I wouldn't give up on him either. I would begin each lesson expecting him to cooperate. If he refuses, I would tell him that he can just tell me when he is ready to begin his lesson. Then I would wait patiently and see what he does. Any excessively rude behavior would result in terminating the lesson immediately. I would leave it up to his mom to decide when and if she is ready to quit paying for him to come to his lessons and do nothing.


-- Carole (tashapug@yahoo.com), March 27, 2001.

I agree with Carole. This boys needs some structure, probably in all areas of his life. I wouldn't want to give up on him either because there's obviously some problems and this boy is crying out. He is going for shock value by swearing - I would give no reaction except to announce the lesson is over. I would set down the rules: When you're ready to play - the lesson will begin When you refuse to play - I will wait (no pleading, I would just look interested reading something else until he's ready). If you misbehave - the lesson is over. After he figures out the boundaries he will realize it's all up to him. Hopefully he will respond. I sometimes think that we are the only stable people in some childrens' lives. GOOD LUCK!

-- Jennifer (Jennifer.DeBrosse@worldnet.att.net), March 27, 2001.

Hi Busy Mom,

You are obviously also "Caring Piano Teacher." You say he plays a song for you at the beginning of the lesson. Is it always the same song? Some children find a song they love and then don't practice much else. Of course if they have loving support and encouragement at home they are much more likely to play the other songs you have assigned.

Does anyone remember that great episode of "Wonder Years" where Kevin, hoping to be noticed by the beautiful Wendy at lunchtime, is watching his nerdy friend slurp spaghetti, then teased mercilessly by his older brother, embarassing him in front of Wendy? Totally exasperated, he runs out of the lunchroom where the asst. principal accosts him because he has taken an apple out of the lunchroom so he throws it across the room. Next he is sitting in the principal's office with his mother saying, "Sweetheart, why would you throw an apple?" His reply--"I don't know." What he does know is that no one would ever understand his feelings so he doesn't even try.

There is no way we can ever know what is going on with our students the other 6 days and 23 hours we don't see them. Some are living at a different house every other day! Others have just had an argument about not practicing with their moms on the way to the lesson, a bad day at school, are sick or just very tired. I have had a number of students through the years crying or reluctant to come in for a lesson. I always get them through the door with an offering to play for them instead. I will play several songs and just cheer them up-- we all know how the music does that. I give them a little story about how Chopin's favorite sister died when they were teenagers, and he was so sad. He could have stopped playing piano but instead he wrote beautiful songs and they made him feel better. Then I play a little from "Nocturne in Eb" so they can see how beautiful his music was. One of the best things we have to offer our students is an experience of letting music cheer them up because we all have sad things in our lives and we have to learn how to get through them. Music is certainly one of the best ways for people who love it.

Back to the specific problem--I have discovered that sometimes a student will come back with one song really improved. It will be the favorite for that week and that phase of the lesson is great. Then when we turn to the next assigned song, the student has played it only a few times or not at all and it is terrible. I try not to scold because there has been improvement on something. After all, some practicing is still practicing. I'm just suggesting that perhaps this song is the ONLY SONG he likes or makes him feel good about his piano.

Obviously I am going in a lot of directions here because I don't know the real problem. It's going to have to be your call whether your young student is just being belligerent or whether there is a deeper problem. My first thought when I read your post--what music is he playing? I would pitch whatever songs you are giving him to determine if that is what he is rebelling against. Sometimes the student has been "promoted" past his comfort zone and is resisting for a very good reason. Then give him a few songs slightly below his level that are REALLY FUN! (If you will email me his level I have a TON of songs to suggest!) See if that does the trick. The task is to determine whether he doesn't want to play piano at all, is just too immature yet, is beyond his level and not having fun any more, or has some other problem. I am betting he wouldn't just sit there to see how far he can push the teacher just to be mean. Children want to please, but sometimes they have such hard problems that they don't even know what they are. They want us to be smart enough or care enough to determine what to do.

You are obviously that kind of teacher. Let me know what else I can do to help.

Flo Arnold

-- Flo Arnold (flo@pianimals.com), March 27, 2001.

I agree with Carole & Jennifer. Wait for him to decide when he's going to play & start the lesson; E-X-C-E-P-T don't extend his scheduled lesson time under any circumstances. If he wishes to sit through the entire lesson period without playing for you, then let him waste your time & his mother's money. If you extend the lesson time to give him time to decide when to start, then he'll have the upper hand & you won't have a schedule. Regarding the foul language, don't permit it. My studio policy states that I reserve the right to terminate a student's lessons for continual disruptive behavior. This would include the sailor talk & the refusal to play for me). I once taught a teenager who would come to the lesson & sit at the bench with his arms folded across his chest. After one month of it, I calmly & politely had a chat with his mom & terminated the lessons.

How to handle it: There's no need to react strongly about it. Just matter-of-factly state to the mother that this kid's behavior is unacceptable, & that you will terminate his lessons if things don't improve & he doesn't clean up his language. You can't teach a student that you can't work with.

I don't agree at all about letting things slide due to whatever problems the kid has at home. I feel sorry for the child, but he doesn't have a right to behave the way he does.

-- Music Educator (noname_poster@yahoo.com), March 27, 2001.

Hi Busy Mom. I had a student like this. If I had interviewed him before I accepted him, I wouldn't have taken him (I didn't interview because I was started out and needed every kid who came). But by the end of my 3 years with him, we got along great. For a long time he gave me a headache at every lesson. He had a rough family too. It was a matter of finding how to reach him. I had to balance knowing when to let him talk things out and when to make him work, when to be firm and say "Stop whining and do what I tell you," and when to get silly and tell jokes. It was all definitely worth it tho. If your student is truly having piano problems, then his bad behavior is probably a cry for help, a cry for order in his life, and a cry for someone to respect and love him. You'll have to be firm with him, but also loving. If you have any idea what goes on at home, try to make up for it. For instance, with my student, he was yelled at constantly and told he was no good and couldn't do anything right. And he was called a liar. My response was to never raise my voice with him (tho I did talk in a firm, serious tone of voice), to respect him as a person and praise every thing he did right, and to never say anything about his sometimes wild stories. I didn't know for sure he was lying, so I just didn't go there. Hope you can reach this kid. 6 is so young to be miserable.

-- Julie2 (knerr@uiuc.edu), April 03, 2001.

You might consider listening to recorded music and just talking about anything. This would give you an opportunity to see what he is thinking and if he reacts to different kinds of music.

I was often a troublesome child because I was afraid to ask for things. . .anything. He may be hoping you will sort of read his mind. I acted this way until my mid twenties when I finally got good at engineering and developed some confidence in myself.

As long as you can keep him out of the "swear word zone" and his mother is satisfied enough with his progress why worry. Practice your repetoire while he sits on the bench with you. I used to sit with and watch my teacher in Albuquerque play when I was frustrated with my lesson, I loved it.

Best of luck to you,

Ed Vogel

-- Ed Vogel (ed_vogel@yahoo.com), April 06, 2001.

Alas, I needed to terminate this boy from lessons. We continued to struggle but make progress for another couple weeks.

Then one day he brought a rock into his lesson with him and said he wanted to show it to me, no problem, I acted interested, until he heaved the thing at me. With that I took him to the administrators office, called his mom that night and told her lessons were terminated, I could not allow that type of behavior.

She pleaded and begged, but I stuck to my guns. I wish this little boy the best, he's going to need it!

-- Busy Mom (tomuch2do@hotmail.com), May 23, 2001.

I wouldn't tolerate that behavior, either. Take comfort in the fact that you did everything you could do for him.

-- Music Educator (noname_poster@yahoo.com), May 24, 2001.

It could be that there is no "problem at home." Maybe the boy simply does not want piano lessons. It could be mom or dad's idea, and the boy is not interested. Personally, I don't keep kids who are being forced to be there...it's a bad experience for the student AND the teacher. Ask the boy if HE wants to be there. If not, let him go.

-- Wanda B (WBnotes@aol.com), May 12, 2002.

Ask him if he likes playing the piano, and if he wants to continue learning with you. Ask him if he likes you too. If he says yes, tell him that unless he cooperates you'll have to give him up, simple as th

-- alison dite (alison.dite@ntlworld.com), July 15, 2002.

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