Five Tips for Preparing New Teachers to Work with Students with Disabilities in the Arts

by Rhoda Bernard, Ed.D.

Many of the strategies for teaching the arts to students with disabilities are components of what is widely considered to be good teaching practice for any student population. The critical difference is for teachers to magnify, deepen, and personalize these aspects of their teaching when they work with students with disabilities.

  1. Learn as much as you can about each student. Read IEP (Individualized Education Program) documents, and meet with Special Education staff members at your school, other teachers, administrators, and parents. If time permits, observe your students with disabilities in other settings. Use what you learn to personalize your teaching for each student. For example, a drama teacher learns that a student who has difficulty with expressive language is more successful when she writes down responses to questions asked aloud in class. The drama teacher can incorporate opportunities for the student to answer questions by writing rather than speaking.
  2. Provide structure and schedules. Arts teachers should use a similar structure to every class session, and should put the day’s agenda on the board and go over it with the students. A typical structure for visual arts classes could be to begin with a whole-class demonstration, followed by student work time on individual projects, with a whole-class wrap up during which students share their works in progress at the end of the lesson.
  3. Use simple, clear instructions. When working with students with disabilities, arts teachers should use specific words and instructions whenever possible. For example, a student with autism spectrum disorder may not understand when his music teacher speaks about a note being “on the line” in music notation. The teacher could shift the wording to “with the line through it,” which is a more literal explanation of how the musical note looks on the staff.
  4. Engage multiple modalities. Sometimes arts teachers give more emphasis to the modality that dominates their art form—for example, music classes may be more focused on the auditory modality, or visual arts classes may emphasize the visual modality. Arts teachers who work with students with disabilities should engage two or even all three modalities in their lessons. For example, a dance teacher can incorporate visual cues in her instructions by using diagrams or color-coded charts to illustrate the form of a dance.
  5. Remember that fair doesn’t always mean equal. Rather, fair means giving each student what he or she needs to succeed in your class. Some students with disabilities require modifications to tasks, assignments, expectations, or the environment in order to succeed. For example, a music student might need to play only certain notes or sections in an ensemble piece. A visual arts teacher might offer all students a choice of materials, such as playdough or clay, so that options are presented to students of all abilities to set them up for success.
A woman with dark, wavy hair in a gray short-sleeve shirt.

Rhoda Bernard

Rhoda Bernard is the Director of Autism Spectrum Programs and Chair of the Music Education Department at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. As of 9/1/17, Bernard will become the Founding Managing Director of the Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs at Berklee College of Music. She is the author of many essays, articles, and book chapters.

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