Helping Teaching Artists Navigate Special Education Classrooms

A female teacher talking to a young boy in a classroom.

Katie Kirkman works with a student.

With their years of experience as special educators, Katie Kirkman and Andy Dakopolos know the structure and language of special education classrooms can be intimidating and confusing. Teaching artists, in particular, may struggle to uphold the creative integrity of their work while operating inside of a seemingly rigid special education framework. Kirkman and Dakopolos, both doctoral students at Teachers College of Columbia University, believe that with the right tools, teaching artists can creatively and confidently navigate special education settings.

Kirkman acknowledges that special education is full of jargon that may be unfamiliar to teaching artists. But both she and Dakopolos emphasize the importance of creativity in the classroom, and finding ways to be a creative person within the constraints of special education. At the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference, they presented a session offering teaching artists “pro tips” on creating helpful classroom structures, aligning lessons with Common Core State Standards and Individual Education Program (IEP) goals, and working with student behavior plans.

When it comes to classroom structure, Kirkman encourages teaching artists to incorporate visual cues and create routine so students can physically and visually construct their day. “Creating a visual flow for everything that happens helps kids understand their ultimate goal,” says Kirkman. She also emphasizes the importance of creating visual cues and directions in multiple modalities, taking into account the different ways learners might process information.

Dakopolos encourages arts educators to think critically about their objectives in whatever lesson they are teaching and focus on how they can adapt their instruction to meet the needs of diverse populations. There are many creative ways to make accommodations for students and modifications to the instruction that speak to general education standards and IEP goals. For example, Dakopolos says, children can be offered more time to complete assignments or can complete them in a different modality. “I think it helps educators to understand that they really do have a lot of freedom in both how they present information and in what their students create,” says Dakopolos.

According to Kirkman, behavior plans are where teaching artists can encounter a lot of unfamiliar jargon and acronyms, such as ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) and PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports). There are generally three levels of behavior intervention: school, classroom, and individual. Kirkman encourages teaching artists to seek information about the school and classroom behavior plans that are already in place, and buy into them from day one. She states, “When you start speaking the same language as everybody else in the school, you’ll get respect quickly.”

Individual behavior interventions typically exist to deal with problem behavior, and Kirkman recommends thinking about the purpose and function of the behavior, or why the child is doing it. Try directing the student to a positive reinforcement instead of punishing negative behaviors. If teaching artists are creating rules within a lesson, Kirkman suggests framing things in a positive way; for example, instead of simply saying don’t do this or that, teach students the right thing by saying we do do this or that. “Look at each kid and realize what motivates them,” says Kirkman, “then see if you can offer reinforcing, positive interactions or other social motivations to avoid the problem behavior.”

More than anything, Kirkman and Dakopolos emphasize the importance of communication and collaboration when working in special education settings. “When you work with a kid with an IEP, you are suddenly part of that child’s education team,” says Dakopolos, “and it’s important to be a team player. Being fluent in the language of the special education program and being willing to adapt and embrace that child’s system will benefit the student and make everyone’s job easier.”

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