5 Tips for Working with Students with Developmental Disabilities in the Arts

By Alice Wexler

Alice Wexler working with students.

Alice Wexler working with students.

Children with developmental disabilities require that we shift the purpose and meaning of our profession toward a more committed inquiry about how connections between teaching and learning are made among diverse minds. And that inquiry leads us to challenge our assumptions not only about disability, but also the purpose and meaning of teaching art for all children who might benefit from the teacher’s spontaneity, informality, listening, and following.

  1. Let the child lead you. Meet children at least half way by putting away preconceptions about what they can and cannot do. It might mean that you put aside the lesson plan if it no longer serves its original purpose. Finding the students’ interest can ignite engagement and reveal competencies that had gone unnoticed. Breakthroughs are made when students are allowed to tell their own stories in their own language. If students are not linguistically skilled, they will have even more need to represent themselves visually.
  2. Begin art making with a game. I usually begin in a circle when first meeting students. We play various name games that might begin by passing a ball and stating one’s name and something about oneself. The rules then become more complex, such as standing and adding a body gesture to one’s name. After going around the circle once, each student tries to remember the name and gesture of the previous student(s). The game usually ends before it reaches the end of the circle because everyone is laughing. Often I will do simple role playing in which the characters are a teacher, a late student, and a few students behind the teacher who try to mime outrageous excuses for the late student. We then rotate our roles until everyone has a chance to perform. Role playing brings about surprising competencies and talents when children can borrow a persona, such as a strict teacher (role-reversal), or a student in trouble with his or her teacher (empathy). Before visual art making, I usually offer a playful warm up with materials.
  3. Offer students long projects rather than isolated studio lessons. With long projects the teacher may begin with an open-ended idea, theme, material, or medium that may be adapted to the interests and inclinations of the students. For example, as the only requirement I ask that children use a simple video camera with which they may choose to do (but are not limited to) an interview, a trailer for a movie, or an infomercial.
  4. Incorporate time for critiques and sharing. A constant stream of dialogue throughout art making is essential when working with children with developmental disabilities. Critiques are opportunities for the teacher to recap, synthesize, and summarize dialogue, reinforce learning, add a level of self-reflection, and share ideas with peers. Continual prompting from the teacher might be necessary for students with minimal linguistic skills, especially when the student is distracted or loses track.
  5. Presume competence. American educator Douglas Biklen is well-known for using this phrase. He invites us to re-conceive what disability is as understood from the standard of normality. For example, the well-accepted theory of mind, or mindblindness, characterizes classic autism as an inability to understand another’s beliefs and thoughts as different from one’s own. People who are lacking theory of mind are therefore considered to be limited in their social, imagination, and communication skills. This theory neither explains difference nor invites us into realities that are not our own. Rather, theory of mind protects us from imaginatively probing our own constructions of reality.

Alice Wexler is professor of Arts Education at SUNY New Paltz. She is the author of many essays, articles, two books, and a forthcoming book about autism.

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