Five Tips on Encouraging Arts Learning for Young Students with Disabilities

By Jessica Pennock and Angela Steele

Artists Creating Together (ACT) and Grand Rapids-area Early Childhood Special Education programs joined forces to create an art program to meet the unique goals of the preschool population. The program was developed using research revealing the importance of arts education in brain development. This program continues to evolve and change to meet the needs of each student. Below are ACT’s top five tips learned from their work with artists and preschoolers.

  1. Make it meaningful. Art making is an intentional response to our experiences. Whatever the art form, ensure that students are learning how to ask purposeful questions about concepts they encounter every day, from community, to culture, to conflict and relationships.
  1. Celebrate choice. Oftentimes, management and standardization creeps into the arts; children are required to complete step-by-step crafts that look strikingly similar in the end. In every way possible, a child needs to own his or her work, and ultimately the idea behind it. Allowing for choice in terms of approach, media, and scale creates opportunities that challenge the child to think independently and will enrich the outcome of the piece.
  1. Provide opportunities to be proud. Students with disabilities are faced with challenging situations every day. The arts provide a unique space where children can shine; allow them to do so. Display works publically, provide specific positive feedback, and honor your young artists.
  1. Try it all. So you’re not sure if you’re up to teaching breakdancing? Not the best at drawing? Do it anyway, and do it with confidence. Open your child’s eyes to as many art forms, as many experiences, as many senses as you can possibly imagine. If you don’t know how, enlist someone that does.
  1. Stuck? Just flip it. Perhaps the most valuable advice an art teacher ever gave me came when I had been staring for an hour at my sorry-looking, in-progress wood sculpture, poking at it in a measly attempt to encourage it into a more compelling piece. “Just flip it over,” he suggested. What a difference it made—turning the piece into something I’d never imagined. Indeed, when our interactions with students prove challenging and we as leaders and educators feel we are losing our will to approach a student in a positive, uplifting way, take a mental step back and reimagine the situation from a different perspective. Teach your students to do the same.


Angela Steele headshot

Angela Steele

Angela Steele is the executive director of Artists Creating Together. She has a Master of Science in Education and experience teaching children and adults of diverse backgrounds and teaching those with special needs. One of her sons has a disability and participates in ACT programming, so she knows how transformational art education can be for individuals with disabilities. She is actively involved in supporting art and education throughout the community.


Jessica Pennock headshot

Jessica Pennock


Jessica Pennock is the Interim Program Assistant at Artists Creating Together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s