Using Prodigies with Kids & Adults with Special Needs

Adaptive Music & Special Education

One of the most common questions I receive in my inbox is something like “have you used this program with children who have special needs?”

I’ve written a bit about this before, but when I was private music teacher, more than half of my families had children with special needs. I didn’t even realize that it was more than half until I got to talking about it with a parent one day. As she described it to me, their family found me because…

  1. They were actively looking for educational programs (where families w/o special needs kids might be a little more passive about that)
  2. They were looking for something musical and rhythmic, because their daughter seemed drawn to anything rhythmic (she’s a killer dancer too!)
  3. And the ease of the our whole system with color coded music, videos and instruments really enable their child to engage with music more quickly and more accurately than ever before
  • Colorful, accessible & easy to play instruments
  • Colorful & replay-able videos makes music lessons accessible
  • Info & success stories below

And as an added bonus, the Solfege Hand-Signs that we use in the Playground are perfect for any ASL speakers out there and the short and easy nature of the solfege sounds might even be approachable to some learners who otherwise are a bit more non-verbal.

My Special Ed Background

My special education background started out pretty young as a result of my mom running The Holistic Learning Center. At first she worked out of her home and eventually out of an office up the street, and over the years I played helpful roles as an assistant, as a musician and eventually I even was trained up enough to handle some of her cases for a full 30 minute music session.

When I worked at the University of Delaware’s Early Learning Center, I had between one and three kids in my group of 12 who had special needs. My after-school group was more like a 13 person family than it was a classroom, and I learned a lot about integrating children with all types of educational needs in the same room. I also ran music classes at several CERTS centers for adults who needed special care and so all in all, I at least have some general idea of how music works (and doesn’t work) in special education settings.

I’m not a trained therapist, nor am I attempting to provide any kind of medical advice here, but I do think I can provide some insight as to how parents and teachers can engage people with special needs in musical experiences that far exceed what might normally be thought possible.

Music for the Sake of Music – Giving Children Adults with Special Needs the Joy of Performing

One of the earliest questions I wrestled with when running music classes for people with special needs was something along the lines of “what are they getting out of it?” I know that sounds a bit cynical but I wanted to understand exactly why it seemed like the drums, the bells and the piano were so effective and engaging for my students with special needs.

I forget exactly what my mom told me, but it was something to the effect of, “well they get the same thing out of it that you do when you play, they just may not show it the same.”

So before we even get started, I just wanted to point out that you can (and should) focus on music for the sake of music. We’ll talk about the other benefits and perks that come from learning music, but first and foremost, music is art. It’s fun, expressive and when you’re actually playing an instrument, there’s more brain activity going than there is with almost any other hobby, sport or art. And even if your learners don’t show it quite the way you might expect, don’t get discouraged.

Call & Response, Imitation and Reciprocation

Bringing music into the special education setting can take all kinds of shapes and forms. You can start by listening to music, moving to music and even making art to music. You can vary it with soothing classical music, upbeat pop music, or get a little bit further out there with some bebop or some world music.

But when you’re ready to work on actually playing a musical instrument with your learner, you’ll want to look to these three steps when you approach a given song, passage or instrument.

Call & Response

Call and response is incredibly powerful, but even more so in the special education setting. Simple patterns of tap, clap, tap, clap are a good place to start. Then you might upgrade to tap tap clap (aka “We Will Rock You”) or something similar.

If you’re working with bells, Boomwhackers or a piano, you might want to use some simple 1 note patterns like Ti-Ti Ta on Do (just like we do in “Hello C”). You can also try 3 note patterns with Do Re Mi, but either way, try to keep the patterns short and sweet until your learner is getting it. You also don’t have to wait until it’s 100% mastered – in a special education setting especially, music really is about the process, not the product, so don’t end up bring yourself or your learner if their timing isn’t 100% perfect

Call and response is also a great way to reinforce “my turn” versus “your turn” and in this sense, it’s the beginning of conversation!

If you’re in the Prodigies Playground, lots of the Preschool Prodigies lessons adhere to a strict call and response format for both t and even in the lesson Solfege Hand Signs and the Bells. For the lessons that aren’t strictly C&R, it’s usually because we’re repeating the pattern together (instead of strictly alternating). All of the Rhythm Lessons (Sweet Beets, Za Time, Snow Day, etc) all feature call and response sections as well as some simple tap-clap sections, which makes them ideal for using in the special education classroom


  1. Imitation is a lot like like call and response, but in the musical sense, I always tried to think of it more in terms of technique. For instance, can I get my learner to imitate the way I…
    1. move to the music
    2. play the keys softly for quiet sections and harder for loud sections
    3. alternate between left and right or between individual fingers on a piano


  1. At this point, learners are less “copy-cat” and a bit more “look what I can do.” Taking your musical play up to this level usually looks something like…
    1. “Trading fours” or “trading bars” aka teacher improvises for 4 measures of “my turn,” then student improvises for 4 measures of “your turn.” This is one of the most successful musical activities you can do with drums, bells or Boomwhackers and depending on your learner, what kind of backing music you do or don’t use, and what kind of instruments you have, you may find that you can do this with certain students for upwards of 15-20 minutes.
    2. Playing along with a song/CD to the point where you’re really playing with, adding to, or following along with the music. This might seem like one of the first things you’d do, but with true reciprocation happening, you and your learners would follow the mood of the music, follow the pacing of each section, the arrangement, etc. It’s basically walking the fine line of contributing while listening. This can be as simple as resting when your instrument isn’t being played/heard, or as complex as learning sections of hits (rhythms the whole band/song is playing). A lot of my students love Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” for the percussive horn/full-band hits. The band Rusted Root also has lots of awesome drumming songs (Drum Trip, Ecstacy, Send Me On My Way, Martyr) with lots of good grooves with powerful hit sections

The Solfege Hand Signs

I’ve written at length about the power of the Solfege hand-signs. These bilateral kinesthetic movements help learners of all ages and speeds attach a concrete motion to the abstract idea of pitch. It also gives teachers and learners a means for communicating about musical notes that’s instrument free, visual and amazingly effective for anyone who communicates with sign language.

The hand-signs are not only kinesthetic, concrete and fun, but they’re each paired with a Solfege syllable which is short and relatively easy to pronounce for kids who are at least partially verbal. If you’re familiar with any speech therapy methods and exercises for helping learners with phonemes, you’ll find that the Solfege syllables are a great way of practicing similar skills!

In my experience, the ‘F’ sound in “Fa” was definitely the most difficult for learners to produce, but that may not be true in your situation!

But if you do get rolling with the Solfege hand signs, you might find that they work almost like magic for you and your kids. Jacki is a mom using the Prodigies Playground with her daughter, and she recently sent us some videos of her daughter singing with the hand-signs with this short but powerful message…

“This is the most incredible thing! Jaime is 5, mostly non verbal…she has never put more than 2 syllables of anything unprompted. I cried when she did this on her way to bed one night. She has been watching your videos for about a month. Thank you for the magical thing that your program has done for her.”

One of my long time students Brynn was particularly fond of the hand-signs and they really opened up her musical vocabulary and creativity! Below you can see her holding a hand-sign mobile that her mom and her put together using some of the Prodigies graphics!

Brynn is a little girl who can strum the heck outta the guitalele, hammer out an original song on piano, sing the major scale in Solfege, and play the bells (when she feels like it). Brynn is also deaf-blind! You can check out her story on Facebook.

While I was teaching Brynn the Solfége hand signs, she taught me signs for red, orange, yellow, green, teal (blue-green), purple, pink and red, as well for music, guitar, piano, next, hello, and of course, how to spell my name!

It’s true that some learners on the spectrum have difficulty opening, relaxing or controlling their hands and in those situations, the hand-signs will unfortunately be a bit less magical. Don’t despair though – wrist-bells and specialized music therapy instruments (many of them are electronic, single button type instruments) are more useful in that type of situation.

The bells and Boomwhackers can be great in that situation too, but it’s pretty case specific to determine who can play what kind of instrument. You’ll have to use your best judgement to find what works for you.

Materials to Consider

When it comes to getting ready for Special Education Music Lessons, I (like always) of course recommend the Prodigies Playground as well as the deskbells and Boomwhackers. Our curriculum of videos and books are color coded, they feature the Solfege Hand Signs more than any other curriculum in the world, and the system make it amazingly simple to engage in music lessons by essentially just pressing play.

But outside of what we sell in our shop, you might want consider getting some good headphones. A lot of children with special needs are sensitive to sound, so it’s worth investing in a big set of headphones that block outside sound but also allow you to play music. Most inexpensive (~30) drumming headphones (like Vic Firth) will do the trick.

Drums are also immensely powerful in special education settings. They’re loud enough to demand attention, easy enough to play and they’re a bit more cathartic and kinesthetic than the piano or the bells when you have learners who really need some physical outlet for their energy.

Recommended iPad Apps

The addition of the iPad to the Special Education classroom was an absolute game changer. Many of us don’t see a huge difference between operating a computer with a keyboard and a mouse versus with a touch screen, and even if we do, it’s not a life-and-death scenario.

For many children with special needs, using a keyboard and a mouse is wayyyyy to complicated. It involves several steps, a ton of memorization of the keyboard layout, and most importantly, your fingers are doing one thing while your eyes have to track the results somewhere else.

With touch screens, it’s point and click all day long and the difference is huge for children and adults with special needs. I am by no means an expert in special education technology, but below I’ve compiled some of my favorite music apps that work really well in special education settings!

Toca Band: children drag different instruments (in the shapes of animals, people, objects) onto a stage and the instruments play together. By putting an instrument in the solo spot, the child can then solo over the rest of the orchestra on that instrument. Very entertaining and though a little repetitive after a while, the melody is indeed catchy and it is definitely a good musical game for even the youngest iPad users.

StoryBots: a cute instrument that uses different robots to create different pitches. I like this app because it sticks to the C Major scale (like the bells) and because the song mode is easy to follow and age appropriate.

Baby Chords and Kids Music123: both have easy to play instruments that can give your child individual exposure to individual notes.

Figure: though not specific to children, is easy to use and allows a good deal of exploration with different instruments, beat making, and playing error-free melodies.

GarageBand: one of Apple’s most popular music workstations, GarageBand allows you to record and program entire songs. While complex for a preschooler to navigate, the smart instruments are a good way to expose children to chords and logical beats, and they most likely will get a huge kick out of the sampler instrument.

PianoMaestro: an amazing guided piano program that will drastically improve your child’s ability to read music. Best of all, it works with a real piano (via listening on the iPad mic) AND they recently made all of the content free.

GuitarBots: guided guitar instruction that is similar to PianoMaestro. An amazing app and highly recommended for any guitar student.

DM1: a drum step sequencer that lets the user create interesting beats simply by tapping on a grid.

Melodica (iPhone app): a step sequencer that lets the user easily create simple melodies.

Smule Ocarina: a fun to play a flute type instrument that requires you to blow into the device’s microphone to make sound.

Kim Chandler’s Funky & Fun Vocal Exercises: a CD series available only through her website, these are a great resource for any aspiring vocalist or vocal student.

Drum School: a logical presentation of drum beats that shows both the notated music along with video of the beat being played – a definite must for any aspiring drummer.

Find this Helpful?

Hopefully you found a couple pieces of helpful information to add to your bag of special-ed-music-lesson-tricks.

If you did, share this page with a friend! That helps more people like you find out about Prodigies, which helps us continue to do what we do both here on the blog and inside the Prodigies Playground!

If you really made this far into this article, you my friend are a champion.

Happy Musicing,

– Mr. Rob

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