Peer Partners in the Elementary Art Classroom Lead to Growth for Students With and Without Disabilities

A boy with blonde hair stands and leans over a table wher a boy with black hair sits. They are both wearing white art smocks and holding a yellow paint brush. There is a piece of paper with yellow and blue paint on the table.

Two students collaborate in Jonathan Hale’s art classroom.

Jonathan Hale was teaching art at both Jordan Valley School, a school for students with severe and multiple disabilities, and Sprucewood Elementary School in Utah’s Canyons School District when he had an idea—what if he brought students from Jordan Valley into the art classroom at Sprucewood to work in grade level peer pairs? Hale, an art specialist in the Canyons School District, was well qualified to launch such a program given his certification in special education and experience as an art therapist. With two years of his peer partner program now complete, Hale and his research partners at the University of Utah have found that the art classroom can lend itself to improved socialization for students both with and without disabilities.

In Hale’s program, two or three students from Jordan Valley join their grade level peers in an hour-long art class at Sprucewood for five weeks. The students sit at identified table groupings of four, with one student from Jordan Valley, two peer partners from Sprucewood, and one additional Sprucewood student at the peer partner tables. Hale keeps the art curriculum the same, explaining, “We do an arts integration program at Sprucewood where we take curriculum from each grade level and integrate the arts. Nothing changes in the peer partner classes except that we look for opportunities to make accommodations so there are access points for every kid.”

A boy with blonde hair and a red jacket kneels on the floor, holding a piece of fabric that to thread on a large loom. A girl with light brown hair and a teal shirt stands next to the boy, holding the same piece of fabric in her right hand and the loom with her left hand.

Peer partners work together at a large loom.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the peer partners worked together on projects ranging from weaving to poster design to creating planets. Some artwork was created individually, some in pairs, and some as a large group. Hale cites the weaving project as one that involved both large-scale collaboration and independent work, saying, “We used a large loom to create the state of Utah as a weaving. The students made rotations to the large loom but also worked on small looms to allow for additional access and practice.”

Hale is working with research partners from the University of Utah to assess the peer partner program. They are primarily looking at whether the art classroom can lend itself to socialization between students with and without disabilities. Using video interviews and video of the students in class, the research team monitored the peer groups, looked at sustained interactions, and measured how long the students engaged in activities.

A girl with dark pigtails and a white art smock paints with purple paint.

Students paint in Hale’s art classroom.

The findings thus far indicate that acceptance of peers does increase dramatically after participation in the peer partner program. The research team also found that students with disabilities could find success working with a peer that they could not find working with a teacher. “Peers are highly flexible in ways a teacher might not be able to be,” explains Hale, adding that the peer partners would get on the floor and work alongside students with disabilities for prolonged periods. The students with disabilities were also able to maintain a task for longer, sustained periods when interacting with their peer partners.

When asked about lessons learned, Hale says they have identified co-teaching as the best model for the peer partner classes, with both an art teacher and a special education teacher in the classroom. He also emphasized the importance of clearly communicating goals to team members in the room, so that paraeducators and other adults allow the peers to interact directly as much as possible. “Students might have the instinct to talk through their paraeducator if they are close by, but when natural, student-to-student interactions happen, the growth we have seen is off the charts,” says Hale.


Jonathan Hale will present “Inclusion in the Elementary Art Classroom – Peer Partners and Students with Diverse Disabilities” at the 2018 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference on Tuesday, August 7, at 10:00 a.m.

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