Teaching Students with Disabilities

By Dennis McCorkle


I first have to state up front that I am neither a certified music therapist nor a medical practitioner. I am however a teacher with over fifty years’ experience, a parent with personal experience dealing with an emotionally challenged child, a Christian lay counselor, and have had tremendous results with learning impaired students. Throughout the last year or so I have had the privilege of teaching many children, young adults, and seniors with severe autism, brain damage, depression, and ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). In fact, over twenty-five percent of my students fall within one of these diverse categories.  


During the eighties, one of my recording clients was a forty-five-year-old man with severe autism who was legally blind. He was unable to communicate verbally and required around the clock care by his father. He did however possess the ability to hear a classical piano composition once and play it back effortlessly, he was a savant.

Also, one of my businesses years ago was preparing, arranging, and recording songwriter demo tapes. Clients would send a cassette of them singing or whistling their song, I would then transcribe the song and record a basic demo with piano, guitar, bass, drums, and a vocalist; sending back a finished demo that could be sent to publisher. Out of over 2,000 demos recorded during that period, one song writer stood out—a woman named June Fox. June had been born deaf from birth, yet she was able to write songs. She played the organ and would place her hand on the instrument, feel the vibrations of the notes, and would compose melodies that were logical, musical, and better than most of the other writers I dealt with who had hearing.  

Simply stated, you have no way knowing what to expect. A small step to you may the one thing that will open up a door into a whole new world. I go into the lessons with no expectations whatsoever. That being said, I attempt to engage the student in each of the following areas during a lesson: rhythm, fine motor skill development, and participation.

Some Things to Consider

ALWAYS have a parent or caregiver present during the lesson. You will need at times to ask them what things are appropriate to do and not do with their child, what songs they listen to or sing at home, and most importantly what things may upset set them (like touching).

ALWAYS be empathetic with the parents and caregivers. Many times, these individuals are on duty 24/7 with their child. Their emotions are pretty raw and they only want to increase their child’s ability to interact with the world and music is an excellent way to do this.

ALWAYS treat the student with respect and kindness. The student is a person first and is worthy of your complete attention. The student is not a disease or the condition that may afflict him or her.

ALWAYS speak in a gentle manner, no loud speaking or music until you ascertain the students’ tolerance

ALWAYS try to maintain eye contact. Often times a student will look to their caregiver for approval, reassurance, and so on. A simple technique I use is to point with my hand to my eye and say, “Can you look over here for a minute?” and always reinforce this with “thank you” if they follow your instructions.

ALWAYS touch gently and take note of the students’ response to various stimuli, what works and what does not.

ALWAYS include the parent or caregiver with what you are going to do and tell the student what you want to do and ask their permission. For example, if I want to touch the students forearm with my finger in order to teach rhythm and beats you might say:

Sample Script

Teacher: Mrs. Jones, I would like to touch John’s forearm like this (demonstrate on yourself), is that alright with you? If they agree, tell the student what you want to do?

Teacher: John, I want to touch your arm with my finger along with the music (demonstrate), are you OK with this? If they are or do not respond negatively, proceed. If at any point the student becomes agitated or uncomfortable, move on to something else.

Teaching Rhythm

Find a good song to play in the background, I often use ‘Johnny B. Goode’ – Chuck Berry, ‘Love Runs Out’ – One Republic, and so on. Younger students might like ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider’, ‘The Alphabet Song’, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’, and so on.


Gently hold the student’s hands, clapping their hands on beat one while saying 1 – 2 – 3 – 4. Have them follow you until they can do it by themselves.

Marching in Place

Have the student stand and while holding their hands, have them lift their legs in rhythm, marching in place to the music played in the background.

Basic Dancing

Again, while holding their hands have them follow you by putting (Left foot out, right foot in, right foot out, right foot in). Release your hands and have them do this by themselves while you continue moving.

Participation and Fine Motor Skills

Even though many of these students cannot physically hold a guitar, I have found that they can strum the guitar with their thumb while I change the chords.

On piano, I have them find the two black keys and the three black keys. As the visual acuity of the student may be compromised, they may not be able to see the white keys as separate objects so I have them feel the black keys with their eyes closed and have them count the keys they feel. When they can feel the two black keys, we learn where C is, the key before the two black keys. From there, we can learn to play C (thumb), D (index), E (middle), F (ring), and G (little). In many instances, the muscles in the fingers of these students are severely underdeveloped and being able to just press a key down is a major undertaking and accomplishment.

I also expose the students to other instruments and sounds like tambourines, jingle bells, maracas, ukuleles, and so on. Have them say (if possible) the name of the instrument.

Trust and repetition are key in all these areas and it may take weeks or months to see improvement.

About Dennis McCorkle:

Working with students with disabilities is not for everyone and this brief paper only touches the surface of what you as a teacher need to be aware of. It is a hard half hour lesson! But as you may have surmised, can be rewarding beyond description. If any of you would like to speak further about this topic, please feel free to contact me at any time. (203) 952-7837 dfmccorkle@gmail.com

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