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? Do they have difficulty understanding their own emotions?
A good framework can provide a basic and unified structure within which goals can be set and adaptations made. Most published suggestions for special-needs adaptations tend to be oversimplified, often merely stating that lessons should be "modified as needed," or which only give adaptations for a specific disability.
When evaluating or creating a lesson, begin by considering whether there will be students who are developmentally delayed, emotionally disturbed, multiply disabled or who have intensive behavior-management needs. This can help narrow down the types of modifications necessary. For example, developmentally delayed and multiply disabled students may have delayed fine-motor skills and their interests may not be age-appropriate.
If the art teacher thinks creatively, lessons appropriate for this group and their skill level can be produced, while the same lesson objectives can be used with students with higher levels of skills. Perhaps the students are below the level of skillful scissor use, but can tear or snip paper. A lesson can be designed to create the planned artwork while building on the skills the students can accomplish independently or with some support. They can experience the fine-motor practice of snipping or tearing and the creation of a product that contains their own "work"--one that does not always depend on the hand-over-hand assistance of an aide or teacher.
For students who are emotionally disturbed or have behavior-management needs, developing social skills, pride in their work, labeling and expressing feelings, and similar activities are important considerations. Stressing experiencing a variety of mediums, rather than emphasizing discussion, tends to work well because such a program is kinesthetic, often a preferred learning style for such students. An understanding of "where these students are at" can aid choices on lesson plans while staying true to the art discipline's necessary components.
While further specific techniques and suggestions can be given by a student's IEP (Individualized Education Program), support team and other sources, the purpose of this article is to emphasize the role of the art teacher in thoughtfully considering the reasons for how and why they are adapting their materials. Students who have specific needs deserve modifications that stay within the standards for the arts, as well meeting their needs in a well-rounded way that will have long-lasting benefits. The modifications are a part of removing hindrances to appreciation and participation in art. A basic art-teaching philosophy remains as important for these students as for any other students.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
This article is intended to give a basic overview for teaching the discipline of art to the wide variety of students labeled as having "special needs." Consideration of these and other similar questions give information and insights for forming a philosophical framework within which lesson-planning decisions can then be made:
What are the objectives of teaching art as a discipline?
* What benefits does art bring to students with special needs?
* How do the objectives of art relate to the objectives of other teaching disciplines?
* What insights can be gained from non-art professionals also working with the students?
* What goals are supplemented and/or shared?
* Who are the individual students and what are their individual challenges and interests?
* How can individual obstacles be overcome to allow those special-needs students to participate in meaningful art?
Art should always retain its place as a valid teaching discipline. A consideration of these broader questions can help the art teacher form a basic philosophy to approach challenges that might prevent special-needs students from participating in art's benefits and joys.--C. G.
Christa Germain is an itinerant art teacher in the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery County BOCES school districts in Johnstown, New York.…