music and special education

General Music and Special Education

Being a general music teacher is a tough job. One area that can be a stress point is meeting the needs of our special education students. General music teachers can serve anywhere from 300 to 1,000 children during the course of a week or year, and keeping up with the details for each child can seem daunting. However, it is required by law that all educators meet the appropriate goals, targets, accommodations and modifications not only in the regular education setting.

Before I go further, I am speaking from the perspective of a music educator in the USA. The language and processes are centered in the American public education system (this includes charter schools). Those who live and work outside of the USA are encouraged to share your country-specific information in the comments. Also, I acknowledge that some IEP and 504 goals will not translate to all classes. Goals can be course specific. That said, more often than not there are targets, accommodations and modifications that music educators can and should address. 

IDEA is very clear that all educators who serve a child with an IEP or 504 are required to have access to documents for each child they serve. Some music educators are told that they do not need to see the IEP or 504, this information is false. You can be held liable in court if a lawsuit should arise, even if you were told by your school it was not necessary to comply. Legally, we are responsible for knowing the law and reviewing the documents. 

But what if my school or district blocks access to special education documents?

In this case I recommend first contacting your union (if you have one) and/or the school or district special education office. Express your concerns, and take note of the response. If that does not solve the issue, contacting your state department of education special education office is your last stop. In each instance, use school email to ask for access. If you are attending an in-person meeting, ask a union rep or trusted colleague to come with you to take notes. After the meeting, send an email (again using school email) summarizing the conversation to confirm that you understood correctly. In both instances, Bcc copies a personal email address to have a record at home. School email communications are considered public record and cannot be destroyed. In the instance of legal action documentation requesting access will help to protect you from liability.

I have so many students! How could I possibly read and understand so many documents?

I understand! I am old enough to know what teaching was like before the use of computer databases for documentation. It feels really overwhelming. Here are a few strategies to get the information you need.

  1. Talk to your special education teachers. MOST special education teachers will be thrilled that you are interested and willing to work with them. I have had special education colleagues share a “greatest hits” list with me at the beginning of each year. Special education teachers review each child’s IEP at the start of the year. While they are doing that they make a list of children who have an IEP, and areas where they need support in the general music setting. The guidance counselor does the same for students with 504 plans.
  2. Use online tools. My school used PowerSchool for gradebook and student documents and most online tools have similar options. There was a class list with symbols for each student that had an IEP, 504, Mastering a second Language, Heath Alert or Gifted Identification. Click on the icon and the documentation is right there – no more shredding paper.
  3. Use the “IEP At a Glance” page. For most children, understanding the needs outlined on this document will be all you need. If there is an area where more research is necessary, the document can tell you where to look in the larger IEP for more detailed information.
  4. Don’t do it all at once. Most of us do not teach the same classes M-F. After the first time I meet a class, and before the second meeting I go through all of the materials for special education, students learning English, gifted identifications, and 504 plans. Looking over these materials helps when I am making seating charts. The only exception is health alerts. I look those over before school begins. I always want to be prepared for any medical emergencies for the first meeting.
  5. Keep a list of questions or areas for clarification and send it to the appropriate service provider all at once. I keep a document with my notes and questions. After I have reviewed the documentation for all classes, I copy and paste into an email for the appropriate service provider (Special ed teacher, OT, speech etc.) If you have a team of “special subjects,” (art, music, PE etc.) you may wish to do this together. One email streamlines the process for getting the information we need in a timely manner, without causing stress for the service provider.
  6. Never, under any circumstances, sign an IEP unless you were in the entire IEP meeting. This is a violation of federal law. Not a violation to take lightly, there can be serious consequences.
  7. Do the best you can and ask for help when needed. When servicing large numbers of children we are likely to make mistakes, forget to implement an accommodation or support. It is OK, we are human. Own the mistake, apologize to the student, and/or family if needed, make the appropriate adjustments to grade records and move on. If you are having problems meeting needs, ask for help. If help is denied, document. I have found when I am asking the appropriate provider and center the needs of the student, most of the time help is offered.
  8. Keep positive, efficient and compassionate communication with grown ups consistent. Communicate the amazing things the child can do as well as the parts that need more growth. Remember that some parents and/or family members of children with disabilities may have the same disability. Be selective and careful with how you express your concerns.

When I am serving children I think of how I would want to be treated as a child and how I would want others to treat my child, especially if they have a special need or accommodation. Understanding the needs and goals of our children with special needs will make their experiences in music positive and will create a more pleasant learning environment for all students and YOU too.

What else would you like to know about serving our musicians with special needs? Let us know in the comments.

For more from Three Little Birds Music Education Services, visit LeslieAnne’s website.

For a deeper dive into this important topic, check out our webinar with Dr. Patrick Ware, NBCT – Elementary General Music and Special Education: Focus on the Self-Contained Classroom.

LeslieAnne Bird

LeslieAnne Bird is a music and movement educator at University Schools in Shaker, Ohio. She teaches general music and choir to fifth through seventh grade young men and is an adjunct Professor at the University of Akron. She has previously taught in North Olmsted & Cleveland Ohio as well as in Prince George’s County, Maryland. LeslieAnne is a national presenter. She has served as vice president and membership chair for the Greater Cleveland Orff Chapter and is currently serving as the content curator for the Teaching With Orff community. In addition, she is the owner and CEO of Three Little Birds Music Education Services LLC where she offers teacher training, coaching and musical experiences for children and adults. She earned Orff Certification from Baldwin Wallace University in 2014, and has completed Music Learning Theory General Music Level One, Level One World Music Drumming training, Level One Google Certification and has earned the Ohio Master Teacher designation.

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  1. Amy Pryor on September 21, 2023 at 9:54 am

    I have a student with severe disabilities this year. I have had students with varying disabilities, but never all together. She is a 5th grader who is quadriplegic and uses her eyes to move her wheel chair. She uses eyes for an iPad. I’d love tips to use for modifying instruments for students with CP and other paralysis. We are working with apps, so tech help would be great too!

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