Jeltje Simons 
Article Title
Finding an Extra-Curriculum Activity for an Adopted Child 
Posted Date

I want to give you 'the world' dear child, but unfortunately whatever I give you is lost, broken or thrown away after 4 hours, so my gift to you is not of a material nature but my time and patience so you can learn to appreciate beautiful music and play a musical instrument.

As an adoptive parent do you have difficulty finding a hobby or club that your child can participate in?

When my child came home, my first thought was that he needed to meet children and play with them, after all he had been full time in the company of children the first 6 years of his life. He was at home for 18 months before starting school (what was compulsory at that point - he was 7.5 years old), so I was looking at activities where he could play and be together with his peers. I tried several and here were the first experiences mixing with children in different activities.

I tried scouting with him, but this group was poorly supported and not very structured. After attending 6 times he was bullied, the other children did not want to stand next to him, give hands, etc, he was basically excluded. He was still going around with a big smile on his face but he also began asking why the children did not want to play with him. I had to withdraw him as the benefit of being with other children would not outweigh the problems, in fact I did not think this situation I had put him into was healthy for him.

Than we started judo, this was very structured and he did well; we did this for 8 months or so before he had to move on to an older group. The group he was in had children from 4 to 6 and was very gentle; he was 7 at the time but he was rough with the 4 year olds, running over and into them. He really needed to move to the group with older children. As he has a bleeding disorder this was not a straightforward decision, and after discussion with his doctor we decided that the risk for injury was too high in the older group aged 7-13.

We did some swimming lessons but they were not successful either as he had one mission, and that was hanging around the teacher's neck. His total focus on adults and interactions with them as his most important goal in life diverted him from learning a thing. While he was busy smiling at the teacher and pretending to be scared, the teacher responded by giving him loads of attention. Totally understandable behaviour if you think of how he had to fight for attention in the orphanage, but not handy when you need to learn new skills. The other children learned to swim with a floater, but not him. He did learn it later that year when I took him daily to the lake and let him swim every day 25 meters before allowing to play, but then there was nobody around to 'help him' (except myself).

My boy did not do well when it came to interactions with other children, he was really interested only in the adults. Gradually my thoughts changed from "he needs children to play and interact with" to "he needs me around to feel safe before he is able to interact with other children in a healthy way." The behaviours he displayed when interacting with other children might have served him in the orphanage; in real life children did not like to be bossed around, they did not understand his intentions and he often gave wrong non-verbal cues.

So there I was having a child with poor social skills, poor motor skills, poor working memory, and not being able to go anywhere alone, as his behaviours were not appropriate when dealing with unfamiliar adults or other children. Just dropping him off at the local ping pong club was and is not an option. He is too friendly, manipulates adults around him, creates chaos by telling tales and lying, and has a strongly developed feeling of entitlement. These are all very common behaviours for children who lived in orphanages, but they make finding an activity where the child can be successful without causing trouble tricky for parents.

So I was basically looking for an activity that would be good for my boy's motor skills, an activity where he would have contact with other children and where I as a parent would be allowed to be present (up until he went to school he had never been in the care of others except me). It also needed to be something he enjoyed, but this would never be a deciding factor when it came to a decision to continue or not.

My boy is always overly enthusiastic with every new item, experience, situation. Unfortunately this enthusiasm never lasts long, as he always wants something else or it is never enough, but the activities become 'boring' after 3 times or so. This behavioural pattern was to be expected looking at his past, but that does not mean it is always easy to deal with. I am not saying that he has to stay with my chosen activity forever, just that I would re-evaluate it only after a year or so. I observe behaviours, listen to what comes out of his mouth but do not take that as 'the truth' necessary.

I want to give you 'the world' dear child, but unfortunately whatever I give you is lost, broken or thrown away after 4 hours, so my gift to you is not of a material nature but my time and patience so you can learn to appreciate beautiful music and play a musical instrument.

So I decided that I would sent him to music lessons, with piano being a good basic instrument! "Later he could always choose something else after a few years" - that were my thoughts anyway.
As my oldest has singing and piano lessons, I spoke to his piano teacher, who I only occasionally meet as the lessons are at school, and asked him if he could take my 6 year old. To my surprise the answer was 'no', as children here in Sweden start official music lessons at 9 years old. But there was Suzuki violin or cello class where children started as young as 4. And so we became involved in Suzuki violin lessons.

What is Suzuki music education?

Suzuki music education ( is based on the thought that Every Child Can Learn. "That sounds positive," were my first thoughts. The method from the Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki is called the mother tongue approach. Suzuki realized that all over the world children learn to speak their first language with ease, and this he transferred into the learning of music, the playing of a musical instrument. Basically the method is implemented by listening to music, practicing the instrument, private lessons and group lessons.

Group lessons? This was something I had never heard about but it sounded like the thing I was looking for: a structured activity with other children where my boy would be part of a group, but not face any of the challenges in previous activities. The group lessons and performances are very important as children learn to play together and motivate each other.

The Suzuki method is based on constant repetition of listening and playing, just as with a child learning to speak. They first listen endlessly to language around them (ironically our adopted children never had this experience), then they start to make sounds and speak. It is the task for the parent to make sure that listening to the recordings and practicing the instrument occurs daily, and it is enjoyable (with the help of games, reward charts, praise, etc.).

Listening to classical music and the repertoire the child plays is a very important daily task. This listening can be done anywhere, in the car, while playing with toys, as back ground music. The main reason is that when the child starts to learn a new piece he is already familiar with the tune.

When the child starts playing, a daily repetition is necessary. Remember how a child learns to speak? They practice the same phrase over and over, and even when a word is learned it is still used frequently. Unlike traditional music lessons where you learn a piece and then move on, in Suzuki education everything what is learned is repeated ideally daily (until the workload gets too big and the pieces will be rotated).

Suzuki's idea was that children learn to talk first before they learn to read; for this reason music reading is delayed in Suzuki education. Every piece needs to be memorized. Depending on the child's age and development, they generally start learning to read music somewhere after the first book. (The Suzuki method provides 10 books to study). After playing a year I have noticed that my son began to memorize his pieces faster. I hope that this memory training also will help him in school.

Why are Suzuki violin lessons working so well for my family?

My child is a 'slow learner', following instructions is often a challenge, he is easily distracted and has a fulltime assistant in school to help him learn and function. For him this system of listening and daily repetitions works very well. As my child has a lot of challenging behaviours, it was such a relief for me to have found this activity that is performed daily, that brings a certain structure to the day, and that will help him not only with motor skills but also with memory and focus. Playing and practicing with an instrument does activate the brain (the Corpus Callosum of musicians is better developed than in people who do not play an instrument). I think my child can benefit from this brain activation.

Another important reason has to do with the behaviours my child displays, his constant need for attention, positive or negative, and the follow up correction of less desirable behaviours. It is so nice to have an activity, for which he can have 100% attention that he so desperately craves and generally positive interactions in a very structured setting. The music that goes together with the Suzuki method is mainly Baroque and very pleasant to listen to.

How to practice

My main goal is to keep the practice sessions fun and enjoyable. It has to be expected that at times the child does not want to practice and will display behaviours that can be challenging. My child is no exception here, I just deal with them as they arise. It will help when practice schedule is not negotiable, and in the same "this is what we do every day" category as brushing teeth, eating breakfast or getting dressed. My child plays 2 times on most days: the first time when he comes from school, and the second time after supper before the bedtime routine.

I started with 10 minutes two times a day and built up practice time over a period of months. School is a difficult environment for my child and he often comes home very hyper. So before I even ask him questions about school and how his day was he will play the violin. It is really nice to see how he calms down and becomes collected again. I practice with him up to an hour, with a break for a drink and something to eat if he loses focus. Certain elements come back every practice: we play a scale and pay attention to intonation, he works on a new song, we play through every song he knows already (different speeds, order, with CD, without CD, etc) and we practice a bit of music reading.

We have certain rules to make practice a bit easier: he is not allowed to talk other than about violin playing; he has to start on time or we repeat the song (otherwise he would always be late); one toilet visit per practice session (otherwise he would have 'needs' to go 5 times); his attitude needs to be pleasant.
There are times when everything is easy, he follows directions nicely and is happy to play. Occasionally he 'hits a bump' and needs some motivators to get through. As he only watches TV about 2 hours a week, TV is a huge motivator for him. I might say if everything is difficult and he has trouble following directions: "First you play the violin then you can watch Animal Planet for 15 minutes."

Another time I would use a 'counter' (beads on a wire that you can move to count the rounds) and I would say: "We play this three more times and then you are done". I would move a bead after each repetition and he can see on the counter how many times he is still to go.

I try to make practice sessions predictable, so he knows generally what needs to be done. Sometimes I surprise him by practicing only one thing, and then I might say: "We play the song from the group lesson 10 times and you are done after that." I do that when he's tired and I have the feeling that practice will be a struggle. I practice daily with him because that is the easiest routine; if I skipped days, we would have endless discussions whether today is the practice day, and he would use every excuse under the sun as a reason why it is not possible today. Generally we practice before we go out, when visiting with friends he brings the violin. If there is a reason for playing being difficult, like when he feels under the weather, he plays just one or two easy songs.

My boy can have a bit of a temper, so it is important that he is reasonably calm when he plays, otherwise he might throw the violin or break the bow. If he's a bit unsettled I do not even start. I tell him to sit down until he's ready to play the violin, he just sits doing nothing. I do the same if he starts to be unsettled during the practice. He does not like having to wait very long and often his attitude changes in 5 minutes or so. If this 'getting ready for practice' takes long it eats into his 'free' time - a natural consequence of messing around.

I praise him a lot for good work and attitude, for good listening, for focus. I hope that he can get his satisfaction from playing the violin, not relying on me or others to praise him for talent or results, or to work for rewards all the time.

Another thing what works well if he is reluctant to practice is giving him some control and letting him choose between practice now or after we feed the chickens, he cycles outside for 15 minutes or we take the dogs for a walk. He always chooses 'the after' option but nearly always does his violin practice afterwards without problems.

He tells me different things when it comes to playing the violin. One day he loves playing the violin and tells me that violin is the most beautiful instrument in the world. The next day he hates the violin and wants to stop playing. My response is always the same: "It's alright, you can stop playing the violin after book 10; we just finished the first book, and this took us a year." As math is not his strongest subject, he accepts this answer for now.

A few weeks ago after he was done with the violin practice, he told me he hated it and after book 10 he would never play violin again. So I asked him what he was planning to do then because stopping would free up a lot of time. And he shouted: "Play flute." I thought that was funny as he had never even seen a flute close up. Another time he insisted he wanted to play cello. When I asked for the reason, the answer was: "Because then I can sit down!"

My child loves recitals and playing for people. (See the video snippets of his progress over one year). In the Suzuki program there are plenty of opportunities to play alone or with your group. Another nice feature is that there are summer schools all over the world and, because every child plays the same repertoire, it is possible to attend any summer school. As our home language is English, I plan to take him to the UK next year to attend summer school there. Good for his English and a lot of fun.

I hope that my boy will develop love for music, that over time it will become his choice, his passion and dedication. Playing the violin brings challenges he has to face, and it brings many rewards as well. He likes the lessons, he loves the performances, and he is aware that the reason for practice is to make it easier. When I show him a video of the very beginning of his practice, he realizes how much progress he has been making.

If you have a child who faces many challenges, playing a musical instrument intensively (like in the Suzuki method) might be a very positive experience. The Suzuki method is very much child oriented, it is not about how fast you can go through the material - some children go slow and some go faster, it is about the child's own musical development, the joy the music brings, the appreciation of beautiful music.

Sometimes I think that playing violin is my son's therapy, and I believe it is a very valuable tool in bringing up a traumatized child if implemented with joy and consideration.


My name is Jeltje Simons and I am a single adoptive mother of 2 boys age 7 and 12. Both of my children arrived a few weeks before their 6th birthday; my oldest - 7 years ago, my youngest - 18 months ago. Both children have significant special needs. Before my eldest's adoption I worked many years as a nurse in residential settings for children and adolescents with special needs in the Netherlands, Ireland and UK. But soon after my older son’s arrived it became clear that in order to meet his severe needs I could not continue working as a nurse. Now we live at a remote small holding in Sweden where my boys are actively involved in care for the animals, and love the outdoor life style.



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