Ideas for teaching a very hyperactive student

February 24, 2008 at 05:29 AM · I've been teaching privately (among other things) for two years now since I graduated from college. I know there are a lot of amazing and experienced teachers on this board, so I was hoping people may have some tips for me on this student. I love the kid-but I'm running out of ideas!

He is a 7 yr old beginner, a funny, sweet little boy. He's quite intelligent, and has a good ear. The problem is this-he has such a short attention span I'm having trouble teaching him.

Some challenges:

-little to no eye contact

-doesn't talk much/ doesn't respond to questions

-walking around in little circles (using a foot chart helps somewhat)

-general constant wiggling and can't seem to stay in one position for more than a few seconds

-Mom says has been diagnosed with ADD, and they use meds to manage it, but he still has significant problems in school, etc.

Now generally, I'm wary of the ADD label and tend to dismiss the idea-but definitely not in this case! He wants very much to learn violin, but can't seem to focus much at all....I can give more details of what we've been working on so far if that would help.

Replies (31)

February 24, 2008 at 06:51 AM · I suppose if he's on medication, then there probably is a doctor who prescribed that medication. It may help to talk to this doctor and see if he or she has any advice and failing that he or she may know a therapist who would be able to give such advice.

February 24, 2008 at 06:55 AM · I think you shpuld ask the mother what her 'music goals' for her child are. It's possible that she recognizes her son's limitations, and at this point in time just wants him to get some 'music exposure'. If that is the case, then your playing something familiar, getting him to hold the violin and bow and 'playing' along with you, listening to music and picking out the violin parts, or the other instruments, might be a good way to get started.

February 24, 2008 at 09:24 AM · I don't teach violin but I do work exptensively with these kids in small group and 1:1 settings.

He sounds like he's doing two things - seeking sensory input, and avoiding learning.

SEnsory seeking kids need sensory input that satisfies their inner drive to maintain an alert and appopriately aroused cogntiive state. And yet even though they may constantly return to a particular type of input, that doesn't guarantee that they will actually achieve that cal m arousal. I use the analogy that its like eating a kilogram of lindt cholcolate because you feel sad or rejected. the cholcolate is appealing, its rewarding in its own right, we may enjoy the experience very much, but at the end we still won't have met the need created by the feeling of rejection.

Constant movement suggests he is seeking vestibular input and so meeting that need is the place to start - this is a hard one because its impossible to really achieve much learning when one is swinging from the rafters. Is there some way of mum getting a huge amount of movement stimulation into him before the lesson - swings, roundbouts, see saws, hanging from monkey bars, trampoline. Its interesting to see just how long these blighters can go for without seeming to tire, but that isn't the aim, the aim is to see if any movement at all, or in fact one or two particular types of movement help him to achieve alert readiness. It may well meet the need, sometimes it doesn't. If it does, then this of course is a strategy for every day life and school, not just your lessons.

some kids can be managed within sessions by having big movement breaks - jumping and skipping, or even crouching and standing up repeatedly.

If the movement itself doesn't quite hit the target, ptry adding bang and crash or heavy work. I see one girl who I though ws movement seeking but the more we did the more she craved without achieveing that calm alertness. I added bang and crash = she runs herself ragged over an obstacle course that requires jumping, climbing, tumbling, rolling, and thw=rwoing herself into bean bags, for 40 minutes, and then I get 25 minutes of great calmness with her. I have other kids that respond well to having weighted clothing (fishing vest with some ball bearing in the pockets), when they are trying to concentrate.

See if he responds to heavy work as that is often paired with seeking movement - heavy work is stuff that makes your muscles and joints work hard against resistance. I get kids to move heavy chairs, drag bean bags, carry books. Sometimes that sort of break is enough to get a few good learning moments.

I guess that is the other thing - look for the windows of teaching/learning opportuinity, don't expect 30 minutes straight. He may in fact take in a lot in just a few minutes.

And of course, even if this is driven by a neurological need to seek sensory input, there is still a behavioural component to it as well -the avoidance- so you might have to work hard to catch him being good, reward him very explicitly when he managies to stay and learn even if only for a minute. Let him know that you really want him to watch and be still and quiet at certain times and you will show him by some signal when those times are, and then he getts like a reward chart sticker or something when he complies with those moments. You might determine to have 5 episodes like that in a half hour lesson, so he has the chance to earn 5 stickers or stamps, and then there is a bigger reward.

If you try your hardest and nothing works, and he's just getting into a spiral at school and home, have the mum cehck inot specialist occupational therapy services. I'm not one for touting my profession, but this is one treatment area that has become a real domain of expertise and a good therapist can really make a difference in the lives oif these kids and those around them. Its not about medicating them out of it, and its not about talking them out of it, its about helping them learn how to manage it until hopefully their neurology matures adequately to allow them to be adaptive.

February 24, 2008 at 02:24 PM · It is unfortunately getting to be the "flavor of the week", but I would have suspicions of some level of Asperger's syndrome/autism. The lack of eye contact, minimal communication & repetitive movement can be symptoms of that. ADD can account for the constant need to be moving, but there should be a significant change if his med is working for him.//You can't talk to the physician unless the mom is enough into violin to take you along to an appointment. Ditto any info from the school itself. Depends how open the mom is, since she did volunteer ADD & meds, and your comfort level/willingness to involve yourself, whether you believe you can ask if any level of Asperger syndrome was considered during the kid's work-up. //Asking mom about her expectations is safer and may be as helpful to you. CAREFULLY discussing your frustration at NOT MEETING HIS NEEDS is a possibility. You can outline goals yourself that you think would help him in general and with violin, and spell those out. " In the next month, I would like Johnnie to learn to stand in one place, make eye contact with us while he announces the name of his piece, and play 3 correct repetitions." // Early in my career, a woman who had taught piano privately for many years gave me this piece of advice. It stuck with me, and has come to mean way more than the simple phrase would seem to say: "If my student doesn't know the C scale, I teach the C scale. And if he doesn't know the C scale next week, I teach the C scale." For what it's worth. Luck! Sue

February 24, 2008 at 03:21 PM · Hats off to you for working with this little guy. I work with kids like this and wanted to commend some of the other posts. A few points to consider. If he can not give attention, he can not pay attention. The heavy lifting is a great idea or any activity before starting. I used dancing with my kids based upon the violin/music theme so it was at least good for listening while achieving the same end. We also had our children in Orff with a focus on movement. Our teacher also had him look at the music when he played as his eyes were wandering all over the room. He didn't read music at the time, but it helped a lot. It is best sometimes to work with children like this in a room that is not heavily decorated with colorful posters etc. It can be very distracting for them. My children were not nearly as distractable as this boy, but based upon his age, you might try a very fast pace to the lessons with minimal clear instructions and not much blab. Keep it really fast and sometimes they can engage. The repetitive movement is a cause for concern. Good luck to you.

February 24, 2008 at 03:24 PM · Kate:

Excellent, expert advice you're getting here so far. Whether it's any of the diagnosed conditions or something psychological or the possibility that this is just one of those kids at the high end of the activity curve, the basic problem you are confronting as a teacher is the short attention span.

Therefore, I think that the suggestions you've gotten here for taking advantage of his attention in brief spurts is the key. Do not necessarily expect this student to pay attention for longer and longer periods of time (at least at this point).

Teach things you can do in literally a few seconds, and then go on to something else. In fact, teach things that are so brief that they are actually shorter than his attention span. Hopefully, that will give him some sense of mastery (and you some sense of satisfaction as a professional teacher) that he can build on.

Good luck on this one. I can't think of anything more demanding on one's attention and patience than learning the violin, and I can't think of anyone less suited to this type of learning situation than a child with ADD or some other problem (physical or psychological) that makes them have this kind of impulsivity and impatience.


February 24, 2008 at 04:04 PM · One more thing:

In our world many children are aware they have a disability. I hear children all the time say things like, "I'm ADHD", or something to that effect. As if they ARE THEIR DISABILITY. You never hear someone say "I'm asthma." or "I'm diabetes". They become the disability and learn their limitations instead of how to adapt to their challenges. Depending on the parents, they can learn to be helpless or adapt very well. "Learned helplessness" is often associated with this type of child and is sometimes commorbid aspect of ADHD. So I would not indulge much "I can't" type talk from parent or child. Can't and won't are often used interchangeably as the challenges get bigger. The parents of these children are sometimes so afraid the children will fail, they start to use the disability as an excuse for all types of "can't" talk. So many parents cling to the idea these children are "gifted". While they might be, don't indulge this notion without an accessment, and just stay focused on small incremental progress. It can be slow going and parents can be impatient as they feel the child is falling behind peers. Read "Boys Adrift" by Sax if you are interested in some ideas about the whole motivation issue. These children need to learn adaptive skills to cope and overcome to learn anything they want to do. Your role will be to hold him to a high standard, albiet, maybe a slower pace. If there is a chance to talk to the childs special education teacher or other professional at school it might help to learn what they are trying to achieve at school so you are in line with what they are working on and share vocabulary. You might consider a conference call with the parent on the call as you will need permission to make this contact due to privacy laws etc. You will need to stay flexible as behavior may change as the child ages. Good luck to you.

February 24, 2008 at 04:18 PM · Congratulations, you're the luckiest teacher to have a child like this because this is the child that can benefit the most from the violin. I work with groups of children with a range of learning disabilities all at once and there are a few things to understand.

1. They will not learn the way you learned, so you can not apply standard methods of learning.

2. They will not SEEM to progress at the rate you want them to... (until a certain of time passes and then you'll realize they were learning all along!) So don't fall into the trap of getting discouraged.

3. Treat his short bursts of energy as astrength, not a weakness. Take advantage of doing things in short bursts and then taking a break. For example (Let's do our first finger down exercise together, and then have him draw on the board) Then repeat the exercise.

4. Lack of eye contact does not mean lack of comprehension. It will come later.

5. ROUTINE ROUTINE ROUTINE. Everything should be a routine, and he'll grow into a level of comfort that he'll return to. The point is to focus his attention on a routine, then REDIRECT his attention to another routine, with little breaks in the middle.

This is how I routine picking up the violin with my most challengning students. There should be a rhythmic flow. ALWAYS do the routine with him, and then have him lead you in the routine. Make him say the words if you can.

- Left hand out, palm facing up.

- Scoop up the violin, show it to me.

- Raising your right chicken wing (arm), go into rest position.

- Hand on the neck, show me the violin.

- Raise your chin, playing position.

- Right thumb up, pizzicato position.

- Pluck pluck D, Pluck Pluck A...

Develop this into a kind of rhythmic routine and over time it will help to gather his focus. Start a little at a time and then gradually add more steps - the bow, reading music etc. Meanwhile each time the routine is over take a break and REDIRECT his focus on something else like drawing, clapping and repeating rhythms, etc.

A year of this type of constant work and you will see a big difference when he is 8. 7 is a difficult age to teach regardless of ADHD!

February 24, 2008 at 07:42 PM · While I have no experience in this field, it struck me that Celtic music, which is as much danced as played, and which can consist of relatively short bits of music, might be of some utility here, combining the kinetic wuth the musical in a digestible dollop of sound.

February 25, 2008 at 03:49 AM · Wow-these are so many great responses! I'm so grateful to everyone who took time to give me advice. :) Thanks!

It's a good idea for me to talk to Mom about expectations. She pushes very hard for him to have something new to work on each week, although I prefer to have him take new things in very small doses.

She practices with him 4-5 days a week, and says that she sets the timer for 15 minutes and he knows that's how long the time will be. The first few weeks, she sat in on lessons, but now prefers to relax in the waiting room (I can't blame her for needing a break.)

He can already read music (from piano lessons), so we're using Essential Elements 1 for the reading book, and are probably going to start Suzuki book 1 in a little while.

February 25, 2008 at 06:29 PM · I would disagree with learning something totally new every time. And practicing for 15 minutes at a time? How about 5-7 minutes twice a day?

February 25, 2008 at 11:22 PM · I have ADHD. Sometimes it can be challenging, but other times I think it's a blessing. I'm one of the most creative people I know, and I think it's mostly because I my mind never stops. The best analogy I've heard is, it's like going to the symphony and trying to listen to only one instrument. It can be done, but it's almost exhausting.

I've tried medications, but I just don't like the way they make me feel. I've learned to adapt though through changing behaviors, and also fitting distractions into my schedule. I can't function unless every aspect of my life is in order. I keep very detailed to do lists, write everything on the calendar, and my home is clutter free and organized. I always allow myself more time than I need to accomplish tasks as well, so when I get distracted it's not the end of the world.

I started playing at 10, and I'm sure I wasn't the easiest child to teach. I had a very difficult time practicing scales and exercises, but I had a wonderful ability to hyperfocus on learning difficult passages. I would spend hours slowly speeding up the metronome. I would suggest finding music that is fun and familiar to play. Fast songs will be easier than slow songs. I enjoyed the Suzuki books for that reason, or you could maybe try some fiddle music too. Set goals with him so he's motivated to practice. Give him specific instructions on what to practice, and maybe even give him checklists to help him on track.

From your description it sounds like ADD might not be his only problem though, but hopefully you're able to make progress with him. Having a creative outlet is an absolute must for me if I'm to concentrate.

February 26, 2008 at 01:52 AM · there's a kid on youtube who plays violin and hula hoops at the same time.

Could be the perfect mix...If I was 7 years old again I'd be practising my a.. off.

February 26, 2008 at 01:12 AM · You might also try writing down on a white board, or large piece of paper in front of him what the two of you are going to do that day. I agree that you have to allow for breaks to do things like climb the walls (literally- I had a student who would take a minute to go climb in the doorway to his kitchen. He would then come back to the lesson ready to do the next thing on the list...) or run a lap around the house or studio.

Keep in mind that this is a totally different kind of teaching and you really have to come to terms with the idea that certain things you take utterly for granted in average children may just not work for him. Of course, at some level you want to always expect the best from your students, but it's also helpful to just "expect what's there", i.e. don't get frustrated by the gap between what you THINK he should be able to do and what he can do. You will avoid a lot of unproductive angst by not comparing him and his behavior to the behavior you've come to expect from a child his age, and you'll get a lot more done.

I remember the first time I taught a class of kindergarteners- I couldn't believe they couldn't sit still and, GASP!, they didn't even know right from left! Well...duh. Now I know what they're like; I expect and am prepared for their behavior, and I have a lot of fun with them. However, if I still expected something that they just can't do, I would be blind to all the wonderful things that they CAN do.

This is not to imply that your student is merely slow or behind or something. I just have found that it's important not to dwell on what the student can't do in favor of what they can do and what behaviors/attitudes/dispositions you can exploit towards the end of learning the violin!

February 26, 2008 at 08:12 PM · Many musicians I know are on the high energy side, easily distracted and always fidgeting when not playing. I think that there are two sides to every coin. Hypersensitivity to sensory input might be on one side while the other side is often an ability to pick up small details from a teacher's example or a recording and to mimic very well. Heightened awareness is especially helpful in the chamber music setting where one must be able to know all the parts and exactly where everyone is simultaneously.

February 26, 2008 at 08:42 PM · I have ADD and was diagnosed as an adult. I find now that it is very helpful to me in coping with it to write everything down.

It embarrasses me to think about how much I forgot about from one lesson to the next, or even from one practice session to the next, when I was a kid and undiagnosed. How much time I wasted that way--almost as if every time I took out a piece of music it was like seeing it for the first time. (I'm sure this was also frustrating for my teachers. The proverbial "how many times do I have to tell you??")

This kid is only 7 so it may be hard for him to be able to write things down as much as I do as an adult. But I think you and his mom could help him keep a written practice log and go over it with him regularly to provide continuity that may be otherwise lacking.

It's also a good way to measure progress. Even if he doesn't "feel like" he's making any progress, and it doesn't look that way on any given day, looking back at the practice log and lesson notes with all he's been able to do can change that perception.

February 26, 2008 at 10:13 PM · Sounds like you are teaching my daughter... Many good suggestions so far, but from the parent's view:

1. Don't push it. Sometimes it doesn't work, it won't, that's it.

2. Short periods of concentrated work, separated by anything that can get the steam out - run around the room, do 1000 pushups, scream to the max, whatever works.

3. Adapt the expectations, particularly in terms of posture, not moving, etc. If he plays fine while walking, well he can become a marching band violinist.

February 26, 2008 at 10:34 PM · Greetings,

>It embarrasses me to think about how much I forgot about from one lesson to the next, or even from one practice session to the next

Gee, you sound like 90 percent of any stduent in any field I ever met. At least you were paying enough attention to have something to forget...



February 27, 2008 at 12:59 AM · Reminds me of a very talented student I once had in a beginning violin class. The whole class did great with my lesson but Omar couldn't sit still to save his life. So I used to have him do physical stuff all the time. Our classroom was in the basement and when he was really getting out of control I'd say "Omar, run up to the 5th floor and back, I'm timing you" and he'd run off like a crazed maniac it was great. He'd come back, compose himself, and he'd do great for the next 10 minutes!

Omar's mother refused to get him evaluated and diagnosed with ADD, and therefore denying him services and help that he could've used. Such a bright kid but it brought me to tears when I'd watch him take a test and he'd literally be banging the desk from his lack of ability to really focus.

February 27, 2008 at 04:21 PM · One of my students (not ADD or ADHD) would arrive at her lesson bursting with energy. She was literally shaking. So while tuning her violin, I would have her do 25 jumping jacks. We would count them off together, and then she would start her lesson, smiling, happy as a clam, relaxed, CALM, and ready to go. I think her energy came from a combination of Violin Excitement, and being stuck at a desk all day in school. Bless her heart, that did the trick.

February 27, 2008 at 06:43 PM · The previous poster just reminded me of another point. If you have flexibility in your schedule, try to schedule this student's lesson early in the day, before lunchtime preferably. You can get a lot more done in the morning with a hyper student than after their daily sugar rush and downfall of meds.

February 28, 2008 at 12:36 AM · About time of day: it does depend from child to child, and also what sort of medication if any and when it's taken (to the 'medication is bad' crowd: I'll have you take care of my daughter for a day - no, make that an hour - and you may perhaps reconsider). The parents usually know vey well when the best time (and worst time) of day is. And even then, be ready to just let o if it doesn't work a specific time.

If the child really wants and likes the activity, you'll get the best that he can deliver (and the parents will get the outburst right after, but that's another story).

March 6, 2008 at 01:45 AM · I believe you can help him channel such relentless energy into his studies. Try turning parts of the lesson into a game or challenge. Also, how is your pacing? The hardest thing I've had to learn is to keep your talking brief, direct, and moving. I talk excessively and take too much time to think.

March 11, 2008 at 12:54 AM · I'm violinsit and I teach kids to play on violin and i also play gipsii music.

Mihail Chiriuc


Tel: (714) 721-0598

for more information please call me.

Thank You!

March 11, 2008 at 03:46 AM · I'm in my first teaching job (long-term sub for 5 months), and I have a SUPER hyper student.

I'd say (and especially if the student is diagnosed with ADD or ADHD)....

- Remember that all people are unfinished...they all are works in progress.

- Try to gauge how much you can push the kid, without crushing them. I learned in my Special Ed in music class that treating everyone equally isn't necessarily fair...some people just need a different kind of attention.

- I had my hyper student conduct with me (mirror me)...that way I could still run rehearsal, he was near me where I could see, and it was something that he could focus hard on (yeah, he kind of distracted students like he would normally during orchestra, but at least he wasn't running around poking them!)

- Try to find a way to connect. My student used to live in Europe, so I take a few minutes here and there to talk about my time living there and show pictures.

- Kids learn through play. Especially at that age. Maybe find ways to address this. ADD is not that they can't focus at all, it's just they are craving stimulus. Find ways to be patient but to stimulate them too.

I really think it's a specific, contextual basis. I've also spoken with the principal, guidance counselor, and the mother. I made sure I said every compliment that I could think of that I truly felt about my student to the mother.

ie. Jimmy is wonderful at violin, can play in tune, is so nice to talk to about Europe, focuses really well with me one on one, I'm just concerned he doesn't bring his violin to class enough or makes his lessons enough, but when he does he's great!

By speaking with all those people too, I found out some very useful family background issues that made a lot of sense to me.

Keep high expectations for the student, even if they need different means of getting to those. A little tough love and understanding. I can only imagine how many other teachers they clash with in a day, week, month, year...over and over again.

March 11, 2008 at 04:47 AM · I was an ADD child, and really still am ADD, but I remember when I was first starting violin, that I could pay attention to what I was playing if I walked around while I was playing a song. For some reason, I loved looking forward to memorizing a song, so I could walk around the room playing it. For some reason, it was easier for me to pay attention to what I was playing if I walked around.

Also, my mom let me take frequent breaks as I practiced for example, for every 15-20 mins I practiced, I would go jump rope, jump on the trampoline, or run around the block, which would end up being around 5-10 min breaks. Then, I got some energy out of my system, and was able to practice again.

March 11, 2008 at 09:32 AM · What? Where's my pencil? So... where were we? Shifts? No... Carbon? ...Coffee... (mmm, coffee)



March 11, 2008 at 09:44 AM · One word - hammer.

March 11, 2008 at 09:59 AM · Martele.


March 11, 2008 at 12:57 PM · Jessie, I was also taught that "Fair does not mean that each person gets the same thing... fair is when each person gets what they need."

Mihail, the discussion forum is not the appropriate place to advertise yourself.

March 12, 2008 at 01:25 AM · Marina "I'd watch him take a test and he'd literally be banging the desk from his lack of ability to really focus".

Actually, he was probably doing the only thing he could do to help maintain focus - from the bottom up (sensory input) rather than top down (talking himself into staying still).

I never cease to be amazed that our nervous system can direct us to give it what it needs.

This has been such a helpful thread with great ideas.

One other thing I thought of was providing a visual map of the session. With some kids, even when they have the language, sometimes their systems work a lot better if they see what the plan is. Just a little sketch - posture, notes, the name of the piece, all in order of how you plan to work on it. I use an egg timer with many - we work on the selected thing, or they get they get to play with the reward, for the amount of time it takes for the timer to run out. I suspect it helps to establish a sense of time passing.

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