Note: This article is directed toward Piano Parents, though my fellow Piano Teacher People will be well-served to point their studio moms and dads toward this blog.
In Piano Teacher Lady’s studio, October is a month of a dozen renditions of “Pumpkin Boogie,” minor key improv sessions, AIM theory test prep for older kids, and the first wave of the arrhythmic strains of a beginner’s “Jingle Bells.” October is also a month of an uptick in Regrettable Student Behavior, both in and outside of their lessons.
Take, for instance, the bright, articulate 5-year-old–who previously handled preschool, ballet, and piano lessons with an eager and curious spirit–now flat out refusing to comply with any of his parents’ requests. From getting on the school bus, to participating in dance class, to making eye contact with the piano teacher, he has Zero s***s to give. Tears, clinging, and baby talk, met with alternative parental reassurances, reasoning, and threats of loss of iPad privileges, are often involved in the complex ritual of the boy’s refusal to Do Anything.
In another family, a 3rd grader who previously loved her lessons and felt pride in her work is suddenly shutting down, disturbed by the time and effort involved in both her piano and school-related work. Challenges are scary, and the impulse is to simply retreat from them.
Yet another little girl–remarkably bright and naturally very musical–is consistently displaying defiant and disrespectful behavior at home, to the point that her parents feel the need to temporarily cut out extracurricular activities until the situation improves.
These scenarios are difficult to work through as a piano teacher, and even more so for the parents involved. Compounding the difficulty for everyone is this: what, exactly is the root of the child’s behavior? Are there several contributing causes, or one primary? The ten-and-under crowd isn’t typically noted for their ability to clearly and effectively communicate problems and thought processes, hence the manifestation of bad behavior in the first place. So, what are we teachers and parents to do, aside from furtively Googling “Kindergarten Anxiety Disorder??” over a large glass of Shiraz? What follows is the process have come up with so far, though I’m sure many revisions, additions and sometimes complete reframing will ensue as we careen into the holiday season. God bless us, every one.
Part I: Understanding the Behavior
So, what’s the kid doing, exactly? Refusing to go to anything? Shutting down and not completing homework, practice, or other intellectual tasks? Pooping in the toy box?
Whatever the behavior, we need to be aware of the circumstances surrounding it. Did homework and practice suddenly become “unbearably” difficult, or was there always some struggle involved? Did the agoraphobic-in-training totally randomly decide to fight all parental attempts to get her to leave the house, or was there an unpleasant or traumatic experience at school or an extracurricular that may have put her off of leaving the safety of home? Has the toy box pooper also been showing dietary or other health changes, or does he just have unexplained strange potty preferences?
Asking the child what’s going on is an obvious and essential first step, and in some cases, you may get your answer:
“Elspeth, why don’t you want to practice piano?”
“I hate the songs Mr. Burt makes me play, and I don’t even know how they’re supposed to sound.”
In Elspeth’s case, simply asking Mr. Burt to incorporate some easier to manage and more familiar tunes into her repertoire may rectify the problem. In many other cases, the child may not be able or willing to give you any kind of clear answer to their behavior:
“Stewart, your teacher says you haven’t turned in you past three math worksheets. What’s going on?”
“Are you not understanding how to do them?”
“I dunno. I think I do. I just didn’t do them.”
“Well, you need to turn in your homework.”
Little Stewart either straight up doesn’t think his math issue is worth discussing, or is uncomfortable or unable to articulate what the issue is to begin with. In cases like this, parents and teachers may feel at a loss as to how to proceed. The cause of the issue isn’t apparent, and the child is unable to give any explanation. So, what’s a Concerned Grown-Up to do? If you’re a parent, you have the power of communication with other important grown-ups in your kid’s life. I’d start there.
- Shoot an email to your child’s classroom teacher, babysitter, and/or playdate’s parents to ask if the behavior has shown up in their presence, or better yet, if they have any insight as to what may have caused your child’s issue in the first place. Try to ask from a place of honesty and avoid implying blame on any party (e.g. “Little Turandot just hasn’t been herself since her playdate with your kid last week. Does your child have a habit of defecating in strange places??'”) A simple “We’re having some issues with Turandot refusing to use the potty at home. Wondering if she had the same issue at her playdate with Aria last week?” will do the trick. The more information you have, the better chance you have of understanding the extent of the issue, and being able to ask more informed questions that will elicit helpful responses from your child.
- Try to objectively observe when the child’s behaviors occur, and take note if there are any obvious schedule or environmental “triggers.” Does something about that 30 minute span between school pick-up and ballet class just prompt your kid to completely lose their mind? Does an impending recital, test, or other performance related event automatically send him/her into quiet terror mode, where even tasks they typically enjoy become daunting? Just being aware of situations that may contribute to the behavior problem may give you a clearer sense of how to move forward.
II. Addressing the Behavior
After you’ve done your detective work, consulting with other grown-ups in your child’s life and evaluating potential contributing factors, you’re in a place to begin remediating the behavior. For parents and piano teachers alike, this process may not be a fun one. The following courses of action will have to be considered:
- Be absolutely consistent in following through with consequences. If you say, “Absinthia, if you won’t buck up and try to get this worksheet done, you are not getting your iPad later, nor are we going to the zoo with Evangeline on Friday” you actually have to do it. I know, easy for me to say from my safe piano studio, but it’s true, and parents and teachers both know it. My students know that if they don’t learn their piece to an acceptable standard, they won’t perform in the recital, or if they were eligible for a Practice Prize but did not sufficiently complete their work, they won’t get the prize. These consequences are easier to implement on my part and accept on theirs, and I don’t envy the parents’ very difficult job of doling out such behavior modification strategies on the regular. Take heart, though–if it is a simple “child is challenging authority and pushing boundaries” situation, consistent expectations and consequences WILL change the behavior. It will take time and energy, but, like practice, it will pay off.
- Consider scaling back the child’s commitments and schedule obligations. This is a hard pill to swallow for me as a piano teacher, but it’s worth considering, especially in cases of children complaining of being too exhausted to go to many of their activities. In some cases there is another issue, but I’m inclined to think that some kids honestly are just not up for so many activities. They may really just need a streamlined, simplified schedule, where the majority of their after-school and weekend time is left unscheduled for free play at home. Temporarily pulling your kid out of 4 of their 5 extracurricular activities will most likely not be the first step in their life as an underachieving slacker. They will likely find, after a time, that they miss some activities and want to spend more time out learning and discovering new things, and less time vegging out at home. As a piano teacher, I hate to see kids who love music bail on their study prematurely, but I also understand that the child’s overall well being and emotional balance needs to be the priority. If your piano teacher doesn’t feel this way, it’s probably not a great relationship dynamic to begin with. That being said, consider cutting the crazy expensive, multi-day figure skating class before nixing the piano. Just a suggestion.
- Do not be ashamed or hesitant to ask for professional help! In my role as piano teacher, I wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting a parent take their child to a shrink, as that would be overstepping the bounds of my expertise. However, I do wish that more parents with the means and resources would pursue this course of action, as I retrospectively wish my own parents had pursued it for me. (Fun fact: Piano Teacher Lady was once a highly anxious, insomniac elementary schooler, prone to stomach aches and completely gnawed down nails.) If your child is displaying behavior that you just can’t get to the bottom of and it’s causing distress for your whole family, the absolute best thing you can do is get them someone highly skilled in child psychology to talk to.
Obviously, the specifics of your October Awfulness will dictate what, exactly, parents and teachers should do to help their beloved kiddos. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, and take this article as at least a starting point as you work toward a Nicer November, or, playing the long game, a Fantastic February.