Adapting Art Education for Exceptional Children

Article excerpt

A current theory in art education calls for the teaching of studio art in concert with the disciplines of art history, criticism and aesthetics. Each of these areas can have an enriching effect upon a child's learning experience and artistic development. However, for the child with physical, mental or emotional special needs, the introduction of academic material into the studio experience carries with it serious implications. In recent years, studio art has been widely called upon to be the first (and sometimes only) opportunity for the special needs child to be mainstreamed into regular classes. Art is widely regarded as a more "forgiving" subject in which successes can be achieved despite a child's other deficits.

With some modifications in lesson structure, or adaptations of media or techniques, exceptional children have been able to reap the rewards of being in a mainstreamed environment. These rewards include access to more normative peers, greater educational challenges, lessening of social stigmas and increased opportunities to become adjusted to life beyond a sheltered special education atmosphere. However, with the increase in academic expectations in the art curriculum, exceptional children may again find themselves straggling, defeated or, quite possibly, removed altogether from the mainstream setting. It may be pertinent then to explore some possible solutions to these problems, and suggest some approaches for the use of art historical/contemporary visual aides and art criticism with students who require special consideration.

A balance

While art historical or contemporary visual aides play an important part in the learning process, it is important that there be a balance maintained between self-expression and academic rigor. In those programs in which academic rigor dominates expressive self-exploration, the work is often stereo-typical, pretentious or slavishly mimetic. Visual aides should aspire to motivate and inform the child artist, regardless of whether the student has special needs. Handled with sensitivity, the introduction of contemporary or historical visual aides should not necessarily intrude upon the expressivity of the child artist. Used as a motivational resource, they can assist in generating ideas or can facilitate a needed shift in content or style away from commercial stereotypes. For this reason, art reproductions should be complementary to the child's aesthetic sensibility, so that the capacity to stimulate and expand creative responses leads to a greater investment in artistic effort.


Such resources can inspire students if connections are made with particular artists whose work reminds them of their own. For example, by using Chagall's dream-like images to further the aims of motivation, rather than to study and imitate, children filter their own iconography through the master's. Students may also begin to research other modernists working in the so-called primitivist or naive manner such as DuBuffet and Klee. Research should not pretend to assume an academic style of learning (i.e., memorization, stylistic analysis, etc.). However, by creating a working relationship and identification with these artists, students may absorb the modernist sensibility. Such experiences allow a child's own style to expand while remaining true to its own nature.

A group of middle schoolers were shown slides of Stonehenge, earthen drawings from the ancient Peruvian Nazca People and the Ohioan Indian Snake Mounds along with the con temporary work of Robert Morris, Nancy Graves and Isamu Noguchi. …