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Small Touches, Big Results
Small Touches, Big Results

How to get the most out of your special needs arts and crafts students

It's common for children with physical or intellectual disabilities to challenge their educators. With an understanding of your students' special abilities, you can accommodate their needs, boost their confidence and yield results that encourage their interest and participation in art projects. Here are some tips for maximizing the potential of all of your students.

Do your homework

Know the abilities and limitations of each individual in your class before the first session, says Dr. Mary Ann Devine, a professor at Kent State University who directs the Certificate on Disability Studies and Community Inclusion program. For example, a child with autism might have an aversion to fluorescent lighting, she says. In that case, you would want to conduct the class in a room without that type of lighting to avoid a potential outburst.

"Other students can have tactile defensiveness to burlap, velvet or other materials," says Devine. With this sensory processing disorder, certain tactile sensations can emotionally overwhelm. If you are aware of these issues beforehand, you can make simple accommodations, she says. So before you even begin planning the class, discuss the students' needs with parents, caregivers or instructors who are more familiar with them."

Get support

Classes that include students of varying abilities can run smoothly if those with special needs get the emotional and physical support they require. "Have a teaching assistant, a mentor or a student assistant on hand to give special attention," Devine says. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be professional assistance. "You might find that students gravitate naturally to others," she says. "Sometimes this peer-to-peer support works better than anything else."

Break it down

"Provide visual guidance," says Heather Bragg, a teacher, learning specialist, public speaker and author of "Learning Decoded: Using Your Child's Unique Learning Style to Improve Academic Performance." "Break each task down into steps, demonstrate each step and have an example of what the product will look like once this step is completed."

Students can more easily understand projects in small bites rather than as a whole. Using lesson plans can help with both the planning and execution of any art project. Need ideas? KinderArt.com is a great resource with hundreds of art project ideas, and lesson plans to go with them. The site even offers step-by-step plans and projects just for the special needs art student.

Provide extra guidance

Make the project as doable as possible with respect to known limitations, says Bragg. "Draw lines where the child needs to cut, or mark an area with pencil where glue must be applied. Provide support by checking in, using encouraging words and not looking for artistic perfection." Devine says she uses Velcro to hold down paint cans on tables and avoid spilling, and also uses duct tape. "I’ve learned that duct tape and Velcro can be very, very useful," she says.

Adapt to needs

Once you've analyzed the task, you can make simple modifications to fashion adaptive equipment that can help special needs students participate, says Devine.

She once made a paintbrush for a student with cerebral palsy by duct taping a washcloth to its handle. For another student, she hot glued a paintbrush to an oven mitt. And she brought in a tripod and mounted a camera on it for a student with muscular dystrophy who would have had a problem using a handheld camera. Get creative, and devise ways of leveling the arts and crafts playing field, she says.

"Select crafts with care, taking the child’s strengths and challenges into consideration," Devine says. "For instance, don’t ask a child with fine motor skill challenges to draw or cut fine lines. Set them up for success." This helpful handout from University of Toledo provides some excellent strategies to help you adapt art projects and activities for special needs students.

The bottom line, says Devine, is to figure out workarounds that can lead to success — as defined by the challenged student. "Be patient with your expectations and focus on what they can do, not on what they can’t," she says.

Tips and takeaways

  • Assess abilities and limitations before meeting students in class.
  • Have an assistant, whether it is a peer, another adult or a professional.
  • Break projects into small steps, then demonstrate them.
  • Creatively modify conventional tools to suit your students' physical and developmental needs.
  • Make creativity - not perfection - the goal

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