Early Childhood Arts Education for Students with Disabilities

A student artist in an ACT visual art class creates a sensory bag.

A student artist in an ACT visual art class creates a sensory bag. She is measuring out the ingredients, adding them to the bag, and then mixing them through play.

Lifelong arts engagement is often mentioned with regard to arts and aging, but is equally valuable for the youngest members of society. The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently released a report entitled The Arts in Early Childhood that examines the many benefits of arts education for the very young. At Artists Creating Together in Grand Rapids, Michigan, they have long known what the NEA study tells us: that arts participation in early childhood is strongly linked to social skills development and emotion regulation ability.

 

Artists Creating Together (ACT) began their Early Childhood Art Exploration program for children ages 3-5 as a partnership with Grand Rapids Public Schools over fifteen years ago. According to ACT Executive Director Angela Steele, the program serves both students with more severe, multiple disabilities who will not be mainstreamed and students with disabilities in an inclusive setting. For the 2015-2016 school year, ACT has expanded the program to include two new school districts.

 

Students play drums in an ACT class.

A student artist in an ACT visual art class creates a sensory bag. She is measuring out the ingredients, adding them to the bag, and then mixing them through play.

In the classes for students with severe disabilities, ACT brings three local, professional teaching artists in to work with the students. One of the professionals is a visual artist who focuses on sensory art. Steele says the visual arts instruction is “…all about process and product comes second.” ACT also hires a drumming instructor who offers the students a lot of different percussion tools to utilize to make music. The third artist works with the students on creative movement and dance, implementing teaching and occupational therapy goals with movement. According to Steele, the movement comes in many forms. She says, “For some students it’s a head nod, for others it’s moving around the room with scarves. Wings, shakers, and other tools can also help facilitate movement.”

 

For the current school year, ACT has expanded its early childhood program to include a school with both a Montessori classroom and a special education classroom. ACT is offering its arts classes to inclusive groups of 28 students from both classrooms, with half of the students from the Montessori program and half from the special education program. These inclusive arts classes adopted a theme of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book by Eric Carle. They are exploring lessons in creative movement, visual art, drumming, dramatic play, and the art of gardening/nature.

 

A girl participates in an ACT creative movement class.

A student artist in an ACT visual art class creates a sensory bag. She is measuring out the ingredients, adding them to the bag, and then mixing them through play.

Steele says the large, combined classes posed an initial challenge to the teaching artists, but they are motivated by the positive student response to the inclusive setting. She shared a story about the special education students arriving in the arts classroom first, then having a hard time settling into a spot on the large circle on the floor because they are so excited. Once the Montessori students arrive, everyone has an easier time establishing routine and finding spots, as the students respond to peer models and take up peer norms.

 

When asked what ACT has learned over the years, Steele cites their improving student engagement and assessing growth. “Despite the fact that some students have very limited movement, there are ways we can adapt the art instruction itself so all are included – it can be through vocalizations or sounds or eye movements or not letting go of materials. So we’ve learned throughout the years how to pick up on student engagement when they are unable to communicate in the typical way,” says Steele.

 

ACT also looks at artistic, cognitive, and social development in every art form over the course of its engagement with each student. Every adult teacher and paraprofessional completes a program evaluation before and after each art form unit, assessing changes in the students. Steele reports that the evaluations have not only been helpful for ACT, but also to the schools for report cards.

 

More than anything, Steele says the biggest lesson of the Early Childhood Art Exploration program is the real impact art can have on very young students with disabilities. As the NEA study concludes, there is compelling support for a positive relationship between early childhood arts participation and the development of important social and emotional skills.

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