How To Help Neurodiverse Students With Pre-Holiday Anxiety

When Anxiety Means It’s NOT the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Years ago, I was a junior high teacher at a school for neurodiverse students.  It came with lots of joy when a student would have a breakthrough behaviourally, developmentally, or academically.  But, it also came with its challenges. Specifically, anxiety and frustration amongst some of my students.

Most students eagerly await winter break and the change in routine. However, for many unique learners this can be a time of stress.  At the school, we always knew that December and June were going to be tough months for both students and teachers.  For students, the upcoming change in routine tended to lead to anxiety, more frustration with routine tasks, and a big focus on what the new routine over the holidays would be.  For teachers, it required a lot more patience and an eagle eye as we did our best to keep things from escalating.

Signs It May Not Be the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

When things aren’t going well in lessons, it can come from a place of burnout, excitement, or even recital anxiety.

And, when we think about it, this is completely normal. Most of us get a bit nervous when a change in our routine is coming up. I think back to when our twins were toddlers and we went to a weekly playgroup. Without fail, before each holiday conversation turned to “Oh my goodness. I’m going to have all my kids home ALL DAY. What am I going to do?”

In piano lessons, some signs that your student may be struggling with the upcoming holidays are:

  • Easily frustrated with any mistakes, no matter how minor.
  • After a mistake, starts on a loop. They won’t slow down or figuring out how to fix the problem.  And your student will find it difficult and upsetting when asked to stop.
  • Gets highly agitated with new music or concepts. (“I can’t do this!” is a common phrase.)
  • When you try to correct or provide guidance, student plays louder, ignores or gets angry.
  • No longer makes eye contact and may even sit facing away from you.
  • Gets up from the bench and paces (or in more extreme cases, just leaves the room).
  • Hitting the piano when frustrated.
  • Sits hunched into him/herself.
  • No longer wants to talk … even about their favourite subject.
  • Says they hate lessons and don’t want to take them anymore … After talking it through, you realize their stress and anger has nothing to do with lessons or you, but something that happened during the week … Usually ends with “I do really like piano lessons with you, but I just am so frustrated about ‘x’.

As you can see, signs that anxiety is high can range from pretty minor to full-blown, lesson-ending reactions. And that’s because each student has a different threshold. Neurotypical students tend to fall under the first 2 – 3 reactions. Whereas neurodiverse students tend to have reactions that could be anywhere on the list.

7 Tips to Defusing Anxiety and Frustration

Let’s say that you have a student that is showing signs from the list above. This doesn’t mean all is lost. There are ways to help them reduce anxiety while having a successful lesson and learning coping skills at the same time.

1. Use Routine as a Way to Gauge Mood

At the beginning of each lesson, I ask my students how their week was and a question based on something they told me the week before (i.e. project they are working on, theatre show they attended, etc.).  Their answer can tell a lot in terms of their mental and emotional state going into their lesson.

Remember. Just because we have a plan, doesn’t mean we have to stick to it. We deal with humans, not tasks.

Knowing how our students feel means we can adjust to help both our students and us have a great lesson.

2. Offer Yourself as a Listening Board

If a student is truly upset at the start of their lesson, moving into the lesson plan is not going to do any good.  

Ask open-ended questions to get a dialogue going, IF the student is up for it.  Don’t worry about if they don’t want to face you or make eye contact.  

If they are willing to talk, that’s a huge success.  Empathize and validate how they are feeling.

3. Use a Calm Tone of Voice

It can be frustrating when a student hits the piano … again.  But, we are the adults and need to show our students how to deal with their frustrations.  

No matter what, keep your voice quiet, calm and matter of fact.  “Place your hands in your lap.  Even when upset, you can not hit the piano.”  Once the student has complied, you can give them an action to physically work out the anxiety and frustration.

I know adulting isn’t always fun, but we have to take the great with the not-so-great moments.

4. Guided Breathing Exercises

This is one of my favourite and most successful strategies!  

Have your student sit or stand and guide them in their breathing.  “Take a deep breath in through your nose.  Let it out slowly through your mouth.”  

As you do the actions with your student, mentally count in your head to 4 on each inhalation/exhalation and increase that count to 5.  Sometimes it helps to have the student place their hand on their stomach so they can physically feel the air go in and out of their body.  

Even if your student isn’t doing this exactly like you, praise any effort they make.  

Depending on the age of the student, either you can determine when they are calm enough or have them tell you (thereby giving them control over the situation).

5. Change Their Physical Location

Why do students have to stay at their instrument the entire lesson?

Some students do well standing at the piano so they can make small shifts as they play.  Others do well pacing in the room for a couple of minutes before transitioning back to the piano.  And, others do well with guided movement well away from the piano (another of my favourite strategies).

For guided movement, start with an easy routine.

  • Lift your arms above your head.
  • Drop them down low.
  • Arms out front.
  • Arms way out back.
  • Hula to the right and then to the left.

Even my teen students have appreciated this quick routine when they need to release tension.

Some of my favourites to end with are dance moves from the sixties.  Who doesn’t love The Swim?  Even if your student doesn’t join in, they will be watching and maybe even laughing.

6. Get Them to Smile … Or Better Yet Laugh

This tends to be the sign that we can move into the actual piano part of the lesson.  

Moving into this stage can be something simple as “That was so much fun! Boy, I bet I looked pretty silly doing The Q-Tip.  What do you think?”  

A little self-deprecating humour can go a long way to help a student focus outside of themselves.

7. Offer a Way for the Student to Check-in Over the Holidays

We love seeing our students each week. And, chances are they feel the same way.

Every year, I tell my students that I would love to hear from them over the holidays.  If they have a question or want to share a milestone (like a performance), I encourage them to send me a text or email.  They know that while I will be spending time with my family and may not get back to them right away, I WILL get back to them.

One Winter break, I got videos of a student’s first time snowboarding and of students performing their songs.  One student sent me a text saying, “Hi, Mrs. Rosemarie!  This is awesome!”  (He was referring to the fact he could text me directly from his new iPad.)  Sure it may not be piano or music-related, but it provides continuity over the holidays that some students need.

These messages keep student and client relationships strong. Even if you aren’t seeing each other each week. It’s something that I had no idea was a necessary approach when I first started my studio.

When Anxiety Is Part Of ‘The Most Wonderful Time of Year

Even though this time of year can be stressful for some of our students, there are ways to bring joy to each lesson.  And, perhaps even teach a few coping strategies along the way?

And, for a little humour (or perhaps dance ideas for lessons) enjoy this clip from “Hitch”.

Which questions do you have about reducing anxiety for neurodiverse and unique learners in your studio?

Let me know in the comments below!

NOTE: This article was originally published on December 2, 2016. It has since been updated with new ideas and stories.

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