It’s Okay If It’s Hard: Special Needs Children
Special needs children can be especially hard on themselves if concepts don’t come easily. In music therapy we stress that it’s okay for something to be hard, and it’s important to keep trying.
I had a song come to me as I was doing my hair today. That’s a rare thing for me since I usually need to be intentionally working on a song or be lost in the moment during a session to come up with anything. But so it was. I was thinking about a sweet girl with whom I have been working who gets frustrated easily if she can’t do or understand something right the first time. In the last couple weeks I’ve focused on telling her “it’s okay not to know”, and asking her to tell me if she doesn’t understand something. Her mother reports that she is beginning to say this at home, which is opening up a whole world of understanding for her parents. Most of the time they simply didn’t know what she didn’t know, which inevitably led to frustration for both parent and child.
As parents and practitioners it can be difficult to be completely aware of what a special needs children do and do not understand. If we assume or expect a child to understand something that they do not, and do not seek to find out whether or not the understanding if present, it will most likely lead to embarrassment and/or frustration. For example, if a parent assumes that a child understands a verbal directive but the child does not respond, the parent will likely be frustrated that the child is not following the command, and the child may become frustrated because they don’t understand what they are supposed to be doing.
With all of this said, however, I am a strong believer that therapists, teachers, and parents should seek to assume competence instead of holding back opportunities for growth and learning for special needs children. So often these kids know much more than we realize, and just need the right opportunity to show their skills. A good therapist must 1) assume competence, 2) recognize weakness, then 3) find ways to strengthen those areas that need support; all the while ensuring that the child knows he or she is accepted no matter what skills/knowledge he or she has or does not have. Again, assume competence, but recognize if the competence is not present and must be cultivated.
Because I work with special needs children, they often have delays in areas that most kids their age do not experience. Of course this can be frustrating for them, especially if they feel like they “should” be able to do something just right. To have somebody tell them “it’s okay if this is hard, I can help you”, or “it’s okay if you don’t know the answer, let’s figure it out together”, can be both liberating and comforting (not to mention validating).
Since I’ve given permission to this particular client that she doesn’t need to know all of the answers, I’ve found that she is much more open to learning. Instead of shutting down when she answers a question incorrectly, she now keeps trying as I show her new ways of doing and learning and experiencing the world. In my case as a music therapist I am able to use music to enhance her learning and understanding, and fortunately for her this is a “language” that she can understand. It’s beautiful to see her feeling more confident and comfortable with herself simply because she is not afraid of making mistakes. She knows it’s okay to make mistakes and she is willing to try!
So with those ideas, I wrote this song:
“It’s Okay If It’s Hard”
It’s okay if it’s hard
It’s okay if it’s hard, just keep trying
It’s okay not to win, as long as you play
It’s okay if it’s hard, just keep trying
You’ll get a little better each day
I firmly believe that this is a message that all of us need to remember. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean we should give up. As I teach this concept to special needs children, it is a great reminder for myself. I can tell myself that I don’t have to do everything just right, and that when there is something that is hard for me, I just need to keep trying. I’ll get a little better each day!