Five Tips for Using The Arts and Special Education: A Map for Research

By Jenna Gabriel, Ed.M. and Don Glass, Ph.D.

The Kennedy Center’s recent publication, The Arts and Special Education: A Map for Research, is meant to be a living document that sparks conversation and incites action to support a shared, ambitious agenda around growing the field of the arts and special education. Thus, this resource should not be considered a “be-all-end-all” answer to large questions about the impact of arts learning on students with disabilities. Rather, it proposes priority areas for the field to focus new research, offers suggestions around the field’s responsibility to rigorous research design and methodologies, and charts a course of milestones by which we can measure our shared progress toward these goals.

Whether you are an individual researcher, a program evaluator, a funder, or a practitioner; whether you are working alone, as a program consultant, or with a large institution, there is a place for your work in this map. To get the most out of this resource, we recommend you consider the following:

1. This is not a prescriptive plan. This research map is far from comprehensive, and is not meant to be an exhaustive list of research questions to pursue or literature to reference. Rather, this is meant to be a jumping off point. The three priority areas proposed might help to frame your work or provide direction in a next step. The research questions could be investigated, and might also inspire other rich questions. The milestones are benchmarks by which the field might measure progress.

2. Contextualize your work to identify where you can contribute to this agenda. Just as this map is not exhaustive, it is impossible to think any one researcher or organizations could take on all of these action steps. Don’t think about how you can pursue everything in the map. Rather, think about where your work fits: Do you work with an organization that offers innovative programs for students? Perhaps you could consider how your work helps to contribute to a body of literature in Priority Area 2: Instructional Design and Innovation. Do you work at a large school district or state-level department of education? Perhaps you can look at large data sets that help us understand how students with disabilities participate in arts education in your area (Priority Area 1: Access and Equity). This work will grow and succeed when our efforts are aligned, not when all of us try to do a little bit of everything in isolation.

3. Look to other, more established fields as exemplars. The arts and special education is a young field, and the representative body of literature is still growing. However, this field draws on larger, established fields like arts education, special education, human development, curriculum and instruction, improvement sciences, developmental psychology, disability studies, and more. These fields have rich bodies of research literature that can offer theoretical foundations for our work as well as useful models of rigorous research methodologies.

4. Connect your work to practice and to policy. Remember—research can’t happen in a vacuum. Across the field, we work with real students in real classrooms; research should inform practice, and experiences in our classrooms should drive the next research questions we pursue. Findings should further inform policy decisions, so consider how your work (whether as a researcher or in the classroom/community) can influence systems-level ideas.

5. Be comfortable with discomfort. Close, rigorous examination of instructional practices might not show us what we want to see. Sometimes, teaching strategies we feel intuitively should work might not prove to be statistically effective. While that can be disappointing, it’s important to remember that that information helps us to better understand what does work and why—thereby improving instruction for the students we support.


Jenna Gabriel, Ed.M., is Manager of Special Education at the Kennedy Center. Don Glass, Ph.D., is Research Manager at the Kennedy Center. They are both editors of The Arts and Special Education: A Map for Research.


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