Special Needs

Special Needs Learning in the Time of Covid-19

Special Needs Learning in the Time of Covid-19

While most Singaporean students have switched to home-based learning since 8 April, learning has almost come to a halt for special needs children. In the first week of Singapore’s circuit breaker, I attempted to conduct one-to-one Zoom lessons with my special needs students. Across the board, my students were unable to adapt to the change, largely because they can’t see me in person and do not understand why I am communicating with them through the iPad. My first week of circuit breaker lessons was met with tantrums and meltdowns.

A Strain on Children and Parents

Children with autism do well with routine, and the Covid-19 circuit breaker in Singapore has caused a huge disruption in their schedule. We are now required to wear masks once we step out of our homes, yet some children with sensory issues might feel the urge to remove their masks. Moreover, many children with poor focus may not be able to follow their school’s online lessons. Said one parent of my student, an 8-year old boy with autism who goes to a mainstream primary school, “Home-based learning is not very smooth. I must sit next to him and call him many times just to start writing.”

During this period, parents have to take on the role of teacher and therapist to their special needs children. This is on top of having to work, cook, do housework, and take care of other children in the household. There is no personal downtime.

It’s OK if Progress Looks Different This Season


As a music teacher, I’m tremendously worried that an extended period without lessons will wipe out the progress we have made this year. I am also bracing myself for my students to greet me with anxiety when we resume lessons, after not seeing me for 2 months.

It is unfortunate how Covid-19 has impacted our daily lives, however, we must remain positive. I remind parents that it is ok if progress looks different this period. It is inevitable that your child’s progress will likely be slower this period, and for some students with higher needs, learning might completely stop.

Right now, I encourage parents to focus on your family’s well-being above all else. This way, hopefully when the circuit breaker is lifted, we can bounce back quickly.

Special Needs

2019 Year-End Recital

2019 Year-End Recital

Last December, 15 of my students showcased their skills at our year-end recital, held at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. I was beaming with pride throughout the entire recital, as I watched all my students perform, appreciating how far they’ve come since they first started learning music with me.

An Opportunity for Special Needs Students

The main reason for organizing a recital was to give my special needs students an opportunity to showcase their talents, alongside neurotypical children.

Through my years of teaching special needs students, I realized that they do not get enough opportunities in a mainstream environment to participate in performances or events. This is because a mainstream school does not have the resources to coach a special needs student one-on-one, so as to pull off a successful performance.

Gabriel, 4 years old

Gabriel started learning music in June 2019. He initially resisted attending lessons, and wanted to pluck out every single key on the piano. Now, he looks forward to piano lessons and shows initiative to play songs on his own without adult supervision at home. He is able to sit through 45-min lessons and read notes on his own. His mother said that piano lessons have evolved to become a form of therapy for him.

Gabriel performing Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars and Jingle Bells

If You Never Try, You’ll Never Know

When I first floated the idea of a recital to my students’ parents, some of them were apprehensive.

“What if he has stage fright?”
“What if he has a meltdown?”
“What will others think of my child?”
“What if he fails?”

To which I replied, “If you never try, you’ll never know. What’s the worst that could happen?”

As teachers and parents of special needs children, it is our responsibility to give them as many opportunities as we can. We should also encourage and push them to achieve as much as they can, just as we would a neurotypical child. We should not let our worries and fears hold us and our children back from what they potentially can achieve.

If you never try, you’ll never know! And, you might just be pleasantly surprised!

Special Needs

Is My Special Needs Child Ready to Learn Music?

Is My Special Needs Child Ready to Learn Music?

When it comes to special needs children, we all know that there is never a one-size-fits-all approach. Every child is different and will develop at his or her own pace. From my experience teaching special needs children between 3 to 16 years old, I have found that the students who make the most progress have these 4 traits in common:

1. Interest in Music

At any age, interest and motivation is an important factor of a child’s readiness and willingness to learn. If your child is often eager to interact with musical instruments, or enjoys singing and humming along to songs on TV or YouTube, it is a positive sign of his or her interest in music.

2. Progressing Well in Therapy

As a parent, you want the best for your child and may want to sign up for music lessons to speed up your child’s progress. However, I often advise parents that music lessons should be introduced only after their child has made significant progress in his therapy sessions, be it speech therapy, occupational therapy, or even ABA therapy. For instance, if your child still requires ABA therapy 3 times a week, focus on that till you are able to cut it down to once or twice a week, before adding on music lessons.

3. General Ability to Follow Instructions

For special needs children, they may need short breaks during lessons to stim, and that’s completely understandable. However, they should still be able to follow simple instructions like “stop”, or “come here”. A child who isn’t able to follow these instructions may not maximize his lesson time fully. In such instances, I will work with his parents and therapists to set behavioral goals and may use the same set of flashcards from his other therapy sessions so as to build a common understanding with the child.

4. Able to Recognize Alphabets

As our lessons progress, a child’s ability to read becomes more important, as he will be required to read the alphabets and strike the corresponding key on the piano. The child should also understand that reading goes from left to right, and a paragraph of text is read from top to bottom. This way, when presented with a song to play, the child will be able to read the notes correctly and then reproduce the song on his own.

Every Child is Different

I do believe that music is for everyone, but that does not mean we all have to start learning it at the same age. In my experience, a child who has met all the above milestones will have a better time learning music and will reap the most rewards. This, overall, makes for a happy child and happy parents! 🙂

Teaching Strategies

Using Music Lessons to Build Resilience in Children

Using Music Lessons to Build Resilience in Children

In my years of teaching, I have found that piano lessons are a great tool to develop discipline and resilience in children. The music curriculum, in the early years, requires children to build a strong foundation through effortful practice. This process builds discipline and resilience in a child.

Starting Young

Since most children begin their music education around the age of 3 to 4, I find that this is a prime time to expose them to the concept of “taking on challenges” through learning and retaining more information and practicing increasingly difficult songs.

The beauty of learning music is that nobody starts out perfect, and yet at the beginner level, it only requires simple hand-eye coordination to begin learning. Yes, it may come easier to some than others, but nobody can escape the need to learn, practice, and grow.

Encourage a Growth Mindset

Children and adults alike, do not like difficulties. We all wish to be able to coast through life without a care in the world – however, we know that the real world doesn’t work like this. Realizing this, I adapted my teaching style and went from a teacher to a coach – guiding my students how to embrace and navigate challenges (through the songs we learn), ultimately building a sense of confidence that they can handle what is thrown at them. My wish is that the “bring-it-on” or “never-say-die” attitude that my students develop in my class will have positive spillover effects in other parts of their life even as they grow older.

Are You Ready for the Next Challenge/Game?

I carried out a simple experiment in my studio where I asked my students “Will you like to learn a more difficult song?” They always replied NO. But when I rephrased it to “Are you ready for the next challenge?”, more often than not, I receive an excited “YES”. With this mindset shift, week after week, my students look forward to the new songs they’ll be tackling this week and are always excited to take it on! Don’t be surprised if you hear my 4-year-old student scoff and say “That was so easy!” (Can you imagine a 4-year-old scoffing? It really gets me laughing!)

In fact, it is this “I can do it” attitude that I love to develop in my students.

Breaking Up the Challenges

This is not to say that building such a mindset is easy. Getting our children to see challenges as fun requires a proper lesson plan, coupled with lots of patience and a steady guiding hand. Not only do we need to encourage them to take on difficult challenges, we also need them to embrace their mistakes and work to improve themselves!

To do this, I like to show my students a difficult song that might get them groaning. Then I’ll say – hold up! Let’s break it down. Perhaps we could tackle level 1 today, level 2 next week, and by the 3rd week, you’ll be an expert at this song – which by the way is for big boys/big girls! Sounds good? (P.S. the growth mindset kids love being treated as big boys/big girls!)

Ultimately, I will guide my students to learn how to break up difficult songs into parts and decide their timeline for learning a piece. I do notice in the growth mindset kids that they love pushing themselves, and some would even take on entire songs in a single lesson!

Your Greatest Opponent is Yourself

Because playing the piano is a physical skill that can be trained and developed, I often tell my students that their only challenge is themselves, and it is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. I remind my students to take a step back and observe how much they have improved, how the strong foundation which we have carefully built is helping them pick up songs faster, and most importantly, to never give up! I believe that this will eventually teach them how to navigate challenges and build a sense of confidence that they can handle what is thrown at them.

Special Needs

Teaching a Child with Selective Mutism

Teaching a Child with Selective Mutism

Selective mutism is a form of anxiety disorder where children or adolescents fear and are unable to speak in specific social settings e.g. at school or in public areas despite being able to speak in other settings, such as at home when the child is relaxed .

My first piano lesson with my selectively mute student was intriguing. He was silent throughout the entire lesson, but was able to follow all my instructions perfectly, ultimately playing a simple tune on the piano. His mom did not label his condition, but she did say that he was very chatty at home. It confirmed my suspicion that he was selectively mute.

Develop a Nonverbal Communication System

In subsequent lessons, I worked hard to develop a nonverbal communication system, encouraging him to point, gesture, and write in place of speaking. This helped tremendously in breaking the ice and building a strong teacher-student relationship. He didn’t feel pressured to speak, while I was able to ascertain if he was actually learning and understanding our lesson.

Me: How many counts are there in a minim?
Student: *silent*
Me: You can show me the number of counts using your fingers
Student: *Puts up 2 fingers*

Me: What note is this?
Student: *silent*
Me: Are you able to find the alphabet on the page?
Student: *Points to letter E somewhere on the page*

Allow for “Chit-Chat”

When it comes to teaching special needs students, I believe in encouraging them to express themselves. In the case of my selectively mute student, whenever he displays signs of wanting to communicate, I will put down the music book and we will have a “chat” (still mostly non-verbal).

In one of our recent lessons, he was scrambling to find a pencil to write in our notebook, asking me if I can create a Roblox account to play with him. I felt so out of touch because I had no idea what Roblox was, but I was so happy with the encounter because he was definitely opening up to me and seeing me as a friend!

In another lesson, I put up two fingers and asked him “Are you scared (while pointing to my index finger)? Or are you shy (while pointing to my middle finger)?” He responded by pointing to my middle finger — he was shy. I was thankful that he even answered such a personal question.

Don’t Rush Things

From my experience, rushing or forcing the child to speak often backfires and could potentially damage the relationship that I have worked so hard to build with my student.

Instead of asking, begging or forcing my student to speak, I let him be the leader in deciding how he wants to communicate with me.

Always Making Progress

Today, after 8 months of lessons together, he is able to say hello and bye – but still remains silent during our lesson. Whenever he wants to tell me something, he scrambles to find a pencil and scribble it down in our notebook. Occasionally, he gets frustrated that I am slow in picking up what he’s trying to write or draw, that he blurts out the word (an achievement, I believe!).

Ultimately, I’m glad that we’ve been making progress, not just in our music lessons, but also on social fronts. While my primary role is still to be a music and piano teacher, I believe that music can serve as a platform for me to build confidence in my students, which they then take with them outside of my classroom.

Special Needs

How I Began Teaching Autistic Children

How I Began Teaching Autistic Children

I began working with special needs children by chance. In fact, I was teaching music and movement group classes for 2 to 4 year-old children when a parent reached out to ask if I would be able to conduct one-to-one lessons for her autistic son. I gamely said yes, not knowing that it would set me down this immensely rewarding path.

My first lesson did not go as planned. We only accomplished 1 out of the 10 items I had on my lesson plan. Oh boy. Furthermore, he was unable to stay focused for more than a minute, or to follow instructions on how to play any instrument. With the tambourine, he would spin it round and round. With the xylophone, he was more enthralled by the mallets than the sounding bars. And with handbells, he would lay them out in perfect order, but never hit it with his palm. Instead, he would put his ear close to the handbells and “listen” to all of them. I knew then that I needed to be more innovative if I were to teach him anything.

Inching Forward

My role was to encourage speech and communication through music. Although he had a short attention span, his mom noticed that he responded well to songs at church, always humming the hymns he heard well into the week. This was their main reason for giving music lessons a try.

I observed in my lessons that when he hears a song he likes, even if he might be looking at the spinning ceiling fan, his body was moving to the music – in correct rhythm, I might add. Today, he has tons of dance moves that get us all cracking up. My favorite has to be the “shimmy” which I honestly think he taught himself!

The "Shimmy Twist"

Spillover Effect

Most of the time, gains from one therapy would spillover to another. If he did well in ABA therapy that week, he would more often than not, be able to focus better during music lessons. And because we did more singing and dancing that week, he would then perform better during his next speech therapy.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

But, when it comes to teaching an autistic child, it is often “two steps forward, one step back”. Progress is not easy to measure, because we could be gaining an inch this week, but losing it all the next. And sometimes, we just can’t help it if he’s having a bad week and refuses to participate during our lesson.

Through it all, I have learned that we just have to keep the faith. Often, week to week, I barely saw any improvement. I was constantly worried that my lessons were fruitless and that his parents had misplaced their trust in me. But in moments of clarity, I realized that if I took a step back and looked at where we are today compared to a year ago, I see how much he has gained. His attention has improved tremendously, from not being able to focus at all, to sitting through a 45-minute lesson on his own. This is an amazing feat in itself! While he still struggles with speech, his communication has improved. He knows how to show “intent”, something which we all want to see in our autistic children.

The Journey Ahead

I decided to launch The Radiant Spectrum this year, as an inclusive music school that can cater to autistic children as well. I have seen the importance of early intervention and hope that this platform will allow me to help more children on the spectrum improve. If you are a parent of an autistic child, please do not hesitate to reach out, even if all you need is a listening ear 🙂

Special Needs

Using Music to Teach a Non-Verbal Autistic Child

Using Music to Teach a Non-Verbal Autistic Child

Teaching a child with autism requires a lot of patience, and when the child is non-verbal, the challenges are compounded. Thankfully, music is an effective way to communicate with and reach a non-verbal child, when nothing else will.

Many autistic children are musically inclined, humming tunes they have heard in the past repetitively. And for autistic children with ADHD, while they lack extended focus on one single task, you may notice them trailing off and humming different songs on occasion – often whatever is on their mind at that moment. This is a strong signal that music can be an effective teaching method for them.

The Basics: ABCs, 123s, Days of the Week

While your non-verbal child may not repeat letters, numbers, or words after you, by stringing these words into a song, your child will be learning key vocabulary despite not speaking them.

Start off with the basics and sing the ABCs, 123s, and Days of the Week to your child. Use brightly colored flashcards as you sing them, as these visual aids will coach your child to read.

For instance, with the alphabet, once the child is familiar with the song and the flashcards, I will then do three things. Firstly, I will sing “ABCD….” and trail off so that the child will take over and hum the rest of the alphabet. Next, I will intentionally pass the child the flashcard in the wrong direction, and often, he will be able to lay out the flashcard in the correct position. Finally, for each letter, I will give him two cards to choose from. This serves as an indication of the child’s learning progress, whether or not he speaks.

Adding Vocabulary Words to Songs

I often compose songs to teach words and actions such as waving hello, clapping your hands, or even routine actions like brushing your teeth. With ADHD children who tend to run around during lessons, I also use a song to remind them to come back to the piano where I’m at. These songs then become tools that parents can use at home.

Here’s an example of a song I rewrote to teach the names of everyday objects:

Johnny works with one hammer
One hammer, one hammer
Johnny works with one hammer
Johnny builds a chair

[Replace the underlined words with your child’s name and use other objects around the house. Click here for the original song.]


Keep in mind that sometimes the child may not respond, or may not respond fully. And that is okay. Children with ASD need time and space to think, and sometimes they trail off without answering at all. But as educators and caretakers, we have to practice patience and give them the space and opportunity to respond when they are ready.

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” – Ignacio Estrada