Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.
Art and the Student with Special Needs
If you work with young students with special needs, then you know that no two of them are alike. In fact, the concept of 'special needs' can be very hard to define, since at the end of the day, every one of us has some special needs. Similarly, the concept of 'art' is hard to define; after all, in some ways, just about everything could be defined as an art. This open-endedness is one of the reasons that making art is a wonderful experience for students with special needs. Art does not need to look any certain way, and often, the real value in creating art is in the process itself rather than the finished product.
Know Your Students
Just as with any other curriculum or project design, a good starting point is knowing the students in front of you. This can be particularly important with students with special needs. Start by making a list of your students' strengths, or the things they learn well. Then, make a list of their struggles or your goals for them. You might take these ideas from their individualized education plans (IEPs).
Once you have these lists in front of you, you can start thinking about art projects that will allow your students to work from their strengths and start addressing their challenges. For instance, if a student is really good with her hands but struggles at social skills, you might want to begin with an art project that allows her to work on sculpture independently. Little by little, you can encourage her to talk with other students about her sculpture or even create a sculpture in partnership with another student. You might also have a student whose expressive language is very limited but who seems to have a strong visual memory. This student might love looking at a work by a particular artist and attempting to copy it, thereby expressing some of his or her own thoughts via the art.
Choose Materials Wisely
Part of designing an art project for students with special needs is choosing the materials you will use carefully. When you are selecting materials, think about the following questions:
- Are these materials accessible? Will every student in my group be able to use them, or will some students require extra support?
- What supports can I offer to students who will struggle to access these materials?
- Are the materials safe for all the students in my group?
For instance, students who struggle with fine motor skills might not be great with a paint brush. You can give them larger paint brushes or use pencil grips, the same tools you use to help them hold pencils properly, to work with these brushes. When thinking about materials, you should also consider what kind of time frame you are working with and how important it is to clean up your area at the end of class.
Allow for Self Expression
Many students with special needs can feel frustrated or struggle with low self-esteem. Art projects can be a great way out of this. Emphasize to your students that you value their process, or how they go about making art, more than their product, or the thing they eventually make. Give them a chance to think about the ideas and feelings they hope to express through their art. One helpful strategy is to show students many different works of art by different artists, and have them think about what feelings are behind these works. This will help students feel more empowered to express their own emotions and ideas through their art.
Art can be a wonderful pathway to learning and self expression for many students with special needs, but educators must think carefully about how they will conduct art projects with students. You can begin by thinking about your students' strengths, as well as their struggles and your goals for them. Choose materials wisely and make sure they are accessible and safe for all of your students. Finally, explain that you value process over product, and let your students really express themselves.
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