On Teaching Students with Short Attention Spans, or, Want to Go Ride Bikes?

This post is written by Christy Millera former New School faculty member who recently relocated to Kansas.  Among her many talents, she is an expert at quickly establishing rapport with students.

Maybe you’ve heard the joke: Q: How many children with Attention Deficit Disorder does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: Want to go ride bikes? 

We all have students who, whether they have a medically-diagnosed condition or not, seem to have real difficulty staying focused (or do they even try? we sometimes wonder in frustration). Sometimes these lessons make us want to bang our heads against the piano—more on that later—because we feel that we are teaching the same things over and over every week. We have all been there.


How do we approach these students?  How do we make more meaningful and productive use of their lesson time? How do we share beautiful music instead of becoming frustrated? A short attention span does not necessarily mean that a student is not ready to study piano; it simply means that we need to come at it differently. Over the past few years, I have developed a more patient and deliberate approach with these lessons, and now I find that I look forward to them. These guidelines for teaching students with short attention spans can help our lessons be more productive and enjoyable for both student and teacher.


Some tips for teaching students with short attention spans:

Eliminate physical distractions

Sometimes we can help a child focus and save our own sanity by removing physical distractions. For example, if your student’s shoes keep sliding off her feet, begin a routine of having her take her shoes off at the beginning of the lesson.  Some of my students find it quite the novelty to get to remove their shoes during their piano lessons! Likewise, if a student is constantly noodling around on the keys when he should not be playing, close the piano lid or even lift the student’s hands off the keys and into his lap.  No comment or stern look is needed; the message is conveyed and you can continue on with the lesson seamlessly.


Utilize the child’s imagination

Students with the shortest attention spans often have the biggest imaginations. Imagination is a tremendous tool if we can guide it. I often have this conversation with my elementary school-aged students: “This new piece is going to need our best concentration, so we’ll need our very best thinking caps. My thinking cap is turquoise with peacock feathers sticking out of the band. What does yours look like?” The student describes her own imaginary thinking cap, and then we both place them securely on our heads. As funny as it sounds, this ritual helps a number of my students focus before we begin work on a piece, and we continue referring to our thinking caps throughout the process: “Wow, that was great reading – you chose a really good thinking cap!” or “I’m not sure that thinking cap is working very well. Maybe we need a different one—here, try mine.”

I also try to choose especially imaginative literature for these students.  If I can capture  students’ interest and imagination the first time they hear a piece, they are much more likely to work hard to learn it. Once notes and rhythm are correct, we develop a story (often a detailed one) to go with the piece. Not only does this help the student to create a vivid performance, but it also helps the student to focus throughout longer pieces.


Switch activities frequently

This may be the most challenging tip to us as teachers.  It is easy to go through warm-ups, then review pieces, then new pieces—bing, bang, boom, lesson over.  Yet, I have learned that lesson time is more productive with distractable students if we change types of activities every six to seven minutes.   Try to get the student up and off the piano bench at least twice within the lesson. In a typical lesson, we might start with a review piece, and then we might do some rhythmic dictation on a dry erase board, and then we might build some pentascales, and then we might step the rhythm of a piece, and then introduce a new piece.  While it might seem overwhelming to have to generate so many different activities for a single lesson, the time fills quickly (Click here for a sample assignment sheet and lesson plan),Sample Assignment Sheet and Lesson Plan (3 pages) and the pay-off is absolutely worth it.

Another way to make this structure beneficial is to have a student revisit a new skill or piece throughout the lesson, separating the work with other activities.  This gives the student the opportunity to forget and then re-approach the new skill or piece independently while help is still at hand, and it increases the probability that he will be able to reproduce this work at home.


Be more thorough than you feel necessary

Sometimes it is the simplest thing that will prevent a student from practicing a piece. My favorite [read: most exasperating]? Can’t find the hand position.  After many exasperating lessons with a particular student who never completed his assignment for this very reason, I developed a method that my students have since dubbed the Touch the Door game. Together, we work through finding the hand position for an assigned piece. Next I ask the student to go touch the studio door, then come back and find his hand position again. Then, I may have him go look out the window, do five jumping jacks, count backwards from 20 by evens, you name it—any way to temporarily distract the student from the hand position—then have him return to the piano and find the hand position once more. We typically do about four distractions, and by then the student is confident he knows or can figure out the hand position–even when he gets home.

With new pieces, I always do full workouts for students with short attention spans. Use lots of repetition, but make it purposeful. Either state an expected improvement or set a new goal, or layer multiple expectations one by one (i.e., “That was great—you have a nice mezzo forte sound. Now, let’s make the last note of the slur softer.”) I find, surprisingly, that my students who have trouble focusing really enjoy repetition, as long as there is a clear goal they are striving to achieve each time they repeat the passage.


Be patient

We all know that we need to patient with these students, but that doesn’t make it easy.  Remember, we are teaching these students not only how to play the piano, but also the life skill of concentration. Developing the ability to concentrate is a process, and it may take years to feel that you are seeing progress. Try not to be discouraged when this is the case—the work you do with your student every week is adding up, even if you cannot see it yet.

Sometimes very small assignments are plenty for these students. (After all, what is the good of assigning several pieces if the student is only likely to look at one?) It may be quite appropriate for these students to have only one new piece and one review piece per week, and the new piece might take more than one week to work all the way through. Set one clear goal for each item on the assignment (“Next week, I want to hear all the dynamic changes, even with my eyes closed”; “Be able to play the first two lines with no mistakes”; “memorize the first page”), then spend a lot of time working on that goal within the lesson. With students who struggle with focusing and follow through, I try to get them at least half way to their goal within the lesson. Then the goal seems achievable, and the student is motivated to complete the task at home. Do expect pieces to take several weeks to complete, and be okay with that.


Be Able to Laugh

Choose to be on your student’s team—after all, we are all on the same side!  Our students are aware when we get frustrated, so it is our responsibility to fake it sometimes. If a student has trouble concentrating in piano, he probably has trouble concentrating in other areas of his life, too. One more disappointed and frustrated teacher probably will not make an impact. Instead, try to express your disappointment or frustration in a light-hearted way. For example: I will freely admit to dramatically—but lightly—banging my head against the piano on several occasions when students have come in with excuses for why they could not do the only thing on their assignment sheet.  One week post-head banging, the assignment is always completed. I often use phrases such as, “Oh, if you learn this piece all the way to the end by next weeks, you’ll knock my socks right off my feet! They’ll fly off my feet and clear across the room!” and, “If you forget how to do your warm-ups this week, I think I’ll cry. I’m serious—you don’t want to make me cry, do you?” Be dramatic over goals met and goals missed—it will be memorable, and you may be surprised by the results.

Along the same lines, help the student laugh instead of getting frustrated, too! It can be so discouraging to finally concentrate well and still make mistakes. Help the student to laugh about silly mistakes, and encourage him to try again.


Communicate with the parents

If your student has trouble staying focused in his piano lesson, she likely has similar struggles in other areas of her life. I find that these parents really appreciate candid and regular communication. After a lesson, you might let a parent know how well their child was able to concentrate, as well as particular elements of the lesson or the assignment that help the student concentrate better. I have often had parents voluntarily tell me that they appreciate the ways that their student’s piano lessons are helping the student concentrate better in other areas of life.

While these students can present some of our most challenging teaching, their successes are also some of the most rewarding of our teaching careers. I find it necessary to approach these lessons with a different mindset: I enter the studio content to accomplish less than I might normally desire, and I choose to focus on the small progress that is made lesson by lesson, month by month. Though it is hard to recognize in the moment, all the little progresses do build up and produce surprising growth over a longer period of time. So, though your student may be thinking about riding bikes in the middle of his lesson right now, have faith that with patience and creative teaching his bike route will eventually converge with yours. In the meantime, enjoy the ride.

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