Art for Special-Needs Students: Building a Philosophical Framework

Article excerpt

Art educators agree everyone benefits from the visual arts. In my years of teaching, I have learned that students with special needs may face many challenges in creating and enjoying art. Potentially, through art, these students can be given a way to communicate to others, have confidence in their own ideas, understand emotions, finish projects, improve their fine-motor skills, problem solve, appreciate the beauty around them, and grow in ways that will empower them throughout their life.

Teachers who want to work more effectively with their special-needs students must begin to build a philosophical framework to assist them in lesson choices, as well as in collecting specific techniques. A useful starting point is the realization that art has relationships with many areas of study. When the visual arts are purposefully and creatively used, they can be beneficial to students in a multitude of directions. Students can and should be learning skills that go beyond individual projects.

Non-art professionals often have valuable insights to give. The art educator should see how the aims of other professionals can coordinate and be mutually supplemental to his or her own goals. A current focus in education is an interdisciplinary approach to lesson planning. Sometimes, in the pursuit of this concept, art is demoted to a lesser vehicle for teaching history, science or math, but it is important to remember that art is an area of study to be valued in its own right. Art benefits students in so many ways that it is inherently interdisciplinary.

The area of special education, for instance, has methods and theories that can be transferred into the art classroom. The most important of these ideas is thinking of each student's needs individually, and not being overly concerned with a student's specific disability label or perceived limitations. Special-education professionals plan activities around improving students' weak areas, as well as providing support to pursue strengths and interests. They have much to teach about designing activities that accommodate a blend of higher- to lower-level skills.

The occupational therapist is an especially good resource for the art teacher, giving insights on the progression of skill steps necessary to successfully manipulate scissors, pencils, brushes, etc. These professionals can provide teachers with methods for improving students' physical abilities, which helps their creative expressiveness. This helps the art educator structure lessons to take into account the sequence of physical skills needed for a project.

When considering adapting methods and theories from another discipline into the art classroom, reflect on the purpose of the outcome. For example, art can be therapeutic, but the intent in the art classroom is not for "therapy" with children. Noticing factors such as developmental level and emotional stability, however, will help the teacher meet students' particular needs by creating a better fit between the physical skills, mental level and interests of these students. This results in a greater level of expression and creativity within art, delivering a therapeutic benefit to the individual.

Part of a teacher's philosophy is found as the teacher expands his or her own teaching theory to the special circumstances they encounter with their students. For example, do they normally stress art production, creative expression or discipline-based art lessons? How do these preferences relate to their actual students? What are these students' specific needs and is the current basic curriculum best meeting the situations of these students?

Each class and individual student is unique. Art teachers should ponder who the students are and their particular needs each time they begin working with a group of students. Will these students nave a hard time discussing their artwork because they have difficulty communicating? Do they need to improve their fine-motor skills and which activities will best facilitate this goal? …