Creating the 2017-2018 VSA Teacher Resource Guide: An Interview with Author Shannon Hayes

Picture of two children looking through a container of beads; text reads: "Yo Soy...Je Suis...I am...Motivated to CreateThe recently published fifth edition of VSA’s Teacher Resource Guide provides visual art lessons that challenge students to use their artistic voices to explore how the arts contribute to our understanding of the world, to our relationships with others, and to the betterment of our communities. This publication is a companion for the VSA International Art Program for Children with Disabilities, Yo Soy…Je Suis…I Am…Motivated to Create.

In this interview, author Shannon Hayes offers some insight into the inspiration behind the 2017-2018 Teacher Resource Guide and what she hopes arts educators and students take away from the publication.

VSA and Accessibility: How did you come up with the lessons in the Teacher Resource Guide, and how were you inspired by the principles of Understanding, Harmony, and Change?

Shannon Hayes: When I was first came on board to the project, Jenna Gabriel [Manager, Special Education in the Office of VSA and Accessibility] had mentioned the idea that the lessons might be influenced by the work of composer Leonard Bernstein, so I began researching him. I read some resources available on his eponymous website, writings from his daughter about him, and excerpts from a speech he gave following the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy. His daughter wrote about how she associated her father with the Hebrew phrase “Torah Lishmah,” which she translated as “a raging thirst for knowledge” and talked about how he was a lifelong learner who studied in multiple disciplines and brought what he learned back to music. I think that this idea translated into the interdisciplinary or multiple modality aspect of the project—music, and indeed other artistic modalities, as an inspiration or resource for creating visual art.

In his speech following JFK’s death, Bernstein spoke about the importance of learning and reason as the antidote to ignorance and hatred. When I read that excerpt, I thought about the multiple meanings of the word harmony, meaning a combination of simultaneous notes in music, but also agreement and peace. Out of that research, three central themes emerged—Understanding, Harmony, and Change. Each of the lessons takes one example from the arts and asks students to create their own interpretation of how they contribute to our understanding of the world, to our relationships with others, and to the betterment of our communities.


VSA and Accessibility: What are one or two of your favorite lessons from the guide?

Shannon Hayes: Two of my favorites are Motivated by Music and Portrait of a Leader. Motivated by Music is a lesson that I’ve done numerous times with students in first and second grade and it allows students to create visual representations of how they hear and feel music without any restrictions or specifications of how the end product “should” look. The option for students to work alone or in groups opens up the discussion on the multiple meanings of harmony and allows students to think about their role in a group and reflect on how they work together.

I wrote the lesson Portrait of a Leader prior to artist Kehinde Wiley being commissioned to create President Obama’s official portrait and I was so excited to see the final result of that commission recently! The lesson in this guide challenges students to consider who has been historically identified as a “leader” and how they have been portrayed in traditional Western portraiture through symbols and ornamentation. Using the example artwork of Kehinde Wiley, as well as discussion and reflection, students are asked to determine their own values and definitions of power and leadership and create a portrait of a leader of their choosing in the highly ornamented style of portraiture from which Wiley took his inspiration.


VSA and Accessibility: You provide useful suggestions throughout the guide on supporting students with disabilities. Are there any particular strategies you would encourage educators to consider as they prepare to use the lessons with their students?

Shannon Hayes: I think many educators know their students best, so the suggested strategies are there to give a couple of ideas about tailoring lessons to the students, space, and materials you might have. It’s my hope that all of the lessons can be broken into smaller chunks, extended over longer periods of time, or adapted to match the interest areas and enthusiasm of students.


VSA and Accessibility: What do you hope educators take away from this edition of the VSA Teacher Resource Guide?

Shannon Hayes: In creating these lessons, my intention was to provide educators with a handful of ideas to facilitate students’ exploration of how the arts represent, create, and challenge our perception of the world around us. There is such inherent joy in the process of exploration and creation through the arts, and I hope that these ideas provide opportunities for students to actively participate in the arts as a vehicle for creating understanding, harmony, and change.


Five Tips for Art Teachers Working with Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

By Bev Johns

Estimates show that 46 million children are impacted every year by trauma. The content and processes of art education can play a vital role in the education of children who have experienced trauma, are at-risk, are homeless, and/or are incarcerated. As educators, we must be very sensitive to the needs of children who have experienced trauma and better understand why they may behave in the way they do.

In order to establish positive rapport and to meet the needs of children who have experienced trauma, we must gather as much information as possible about what types of trauma they may have experienced. That may be possible because we have learned about their background or the child has told us. However in some cases we may not know what has happened to the child until an incident occurs and we investigate what may have caused him or her to behave in a particular way.

1. Learn as much as you can about the child’s background without being invasive with the child. We must be careful that we are not asking too many questions of the child. They may be guarded and afraid that someone will find out something that will get them into trouble. Art teachers can learn a great deal through observations, keeping their eyes and ears open, talking to previous educators, and reading past records. We must be vigilant and when students have unusual reactions to specific events or rooms or noises, we need to explore the reasons for those reactions.

When children build trust with the art teacher, then they may give verbal or non-verbal clues about their behavior. Teachers must be good detectives to determine what is happening with the student. You may learn that you or your colleagues remind the child of the person who abused them, or trigger another traumatic memory.

2. Avoid surprises with children who have experienced trauma. Remember that they are on heightened alert and are worried about what might be happening next so we should not come up from behind students. In some cases we may want to seat these children so that no one is behind them. While some teachers like to turn lights off when children become noisy, this isn’t advisable for some children that were locked in a dark room. A high level of noise might trigger a reaction from a child because he remembers the loud noise when his brother was shot on the street in front of his house.

3. When planning activities, think ahead about what impact the activity might have on the student. Even activities that an art educator might perceive as straightforward or simple can become loaded due to a child’s traumatic experience. Offer choices to students about what they can create to help avoid triggering bad memories. For instance, children who have been recently removed from their families or placed in foster care might struggle with assignments that involve drawing or painting their family; it is helpful to offer another option for the assignment.

4. When planning activities, be cautious about the materials you use. The child may have been hurt with a particular object so you would want to avoid an activity where the same object is used. The child may have limited clothing or may have been beaten if their clothes got dirty. In that case, the art teacher will want to provide students the option of wearing protective clothing when utilizing art materials that may get on clothes.

5. Make sure that your art room is a safe and happy place for the child. Create an environment in the art room where lots of positive feedback is given, the child is recognized for his or her strengths, and the child knows that the teacher will not allow them to be bullied in any way. The teacher must be supportive and engage in active listening with the student. Rather than devaluing what the child says, gather more information. When the child says, “I can’t do that,” the teacher can say, “How can I help you?” When the child says, “This is too hard,” the teacher can say, “Can you tell me why,” or “Let’s try this together.”

The art room is the place where there are no right or wrong answers, It is a place where children have multiple opportunities to be creative, express their feelings, and experience success.

Photo of a smiling woman with short, blonde hair wearing a red jacket, black shirt, and round gold earrings.


Bev Johns is a Professional Fellow at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She has worked with children with significant emotional and behavioral disorders for over 35 years and is the author of 20 books in the area of special education.

Helping Arts Educators Understand and Prepare for a Spectrum of Traumatic Experiences

Research shows that traumatic experiences impact a child’s ability to learn and process information, and traumatic experiences can affect student behavior in and out of the classroom. Unfortunately, educators are often unaware of which students have experienced trauma; this is especially true for arts educators, who may have limited access to student IEPs or knowledge of social/emotional concerns that impact students’ lives. But according to Dr. Lisa Kay, Chair of the Art Education and Community Arts Practices Department at Tyler School of Art/Temple University, art teachers and teaching artists can prepare for and better serve students who have experienced trauma by learning more about the spectrum of trauma and its invisible effects.

Photo of a smiling woman with white hair, wearing a gray jacket and silver pendant necklace. Photo credit: Amy Ragsdale

Dr. Lisa Kay

“I say there is a ‘spectrum of trauma’ because when we think of trauma, we often think of a dark place, things like physical or sexual abuse, but trauma for a child can also be the loss of a parent. It can be divorce,” says Kay, who has over thirty years of experience as an art therapist and art educator. She adds that trauma can be compounded by things like poverty or disability, adding to the spectrum of experiences.

Kay says that one of the most important things an art educator can do in preparation for working with students who have experienced trauma is to recognize that we have all experienced trauma of some sort in our lives. She explains, “Understanding that we have all experienced trauma and witnessed resilience helps develop compassion and empathy for our students. It also makes the idea of working with students who have experienced trauma less daunting.”

For teaching artists who may be entering the classroom with little or no information about the students they are teaching, Kay offers a few practical suggestions. “Think about how you move around students. It is never a good idea to come from the back and hand materials over a student’s head because that can seem scary,” she says. Kay also encourages teaching artists to find support in the classroom teacher. “Ask questions,” she urges, “Is there anything you need to know about this class or a particular student?”

Arts educators should be prepared to make accommodations and modifications to their lessons when working with students who have experienced trauma. “We may want to ask questions differently or assess students differently,” explains Kay. She also points out that students who have experienced trauma may need more physical and emotional space than their peers, and emphasizes the importance of listening to them and allowing them that space.

Kay has a background in fine art and design, and when asked if she recommends any lessons that work well with students who have experienced trauma, she immediately mentions bead collages. “With bead collages, or story beads, students create a wearable piece, three dimensional object, or even a small installation using beads and found objects together to tell a story,” she describes. Kay adds that while the final piece is often very pleasing for a student to see, the tactile process of putting it together is equally satisfying. She explains, “The objects can help children connect to deeper meanings. Plus, the process is easily adapted for different ages and abilities, and the materials, things like costume jewelry and recycled materials, are easily accessible.”

Working with students who have experienced trauma can be challenging for an arts educator, but an arts classroom can also be where that child finds compassion, creative growth, and a stronger sense of self. “As arts teachers, we must be as supportive as we can of our students,” encourages Kay, “and try to remember that we are all part of a collective spectrum of trauma.”


Dr. Lisa Kay is Chair of the Art Education and Community Arts Practices Department at Tyler School of Art/Temple University. She is a contributor to Art for Children Experiencing Psychological Trauma (pub. April 2018) and is writing on a book entitled Therapeutic Approaches to Arts Education (anticipated pub. late 2018).

Five Tips for Creating Accessible Conference Sessions

By Diane Nutting

Conferences are a vital part of our professional development. The opportunity to learn more about innovations in the industry, share new insights and approaches, and network with our colleagues provides inspiration and often results in new ideas, new work, and new partnerships. Creating an accessible conference session ensures that ALL our colleagues are included within these learning communities. The five tips below can aid in your planning facilitation.

1. Consider the room layout. Think about the environment you want to create for your session, and how you want your attendees to engage and/or share information with each other. Use this information to decide how you want tables and chairs arranged—taking into account the physical accessibility of the space before, after, and during the session. Once you are in the space, plan for the positioning of service providers such as sign language interpreters and real time captioning as well as the attendees utilizing those services, and keep an eye to lighting, glare, or other visual distractions in the room.

2. Create a safe space. Set the tone at the beginning of your session so that attendees feel safe to explore new ideas without the fear of making “mistakes,” or saying “the wrong thing.” Provide and accept a wide range of participation levels depending on comfort level. Encourage the use of “I” statements during discussions to frame opinions or thoughts. Create and encourage a session environment where attendees can ask for the support or clarification they need.

3. Facilitate accessible activities. Provide various entry points and participation strategies for your session activities. Make sure that hanging or displayed materials are at an appropriate and accessible height and distance for your attendees. Provide materials that can support engagement (examples: if using tennis balls for an activity, consider bean bags which can be easier to catch and grasp; provide markers that are both large and small). Make sure any handouts are designed for accessibility* (font, layout, etc.), and provide alternative formats of the materials (digital access, large print, etc.).

4. Support your slides. Design your PowerPoint so that font sizes, color schemes, and formatting aligns to accessible guidelines.* Throughout your session, be sure to audio describe any images or photos on slides, and spell out any web addresses. Avoid putting large amounts of text on the screen for attendees to read on their own; instead, read that text as part of your facilitation.

5. Make sure everyone is “heard”: Encourage one speaker at a time during discussions. If amplification is available in the room, ensure that everyone uses a microphone (including you). Repeat comments and questions, and clarify any acronyms or industry jargon/terminology that is used. Take note of participation that is only perceived visually and describe it verbally (examples: if you ask for a “show of hands,” be sure to indicate the percentage of response; if attendees are nodding their heads in response, share that information— “I see many of you nodding in agreement”).

Accessibility within conference sessions is about thinking ahead, maintaining a “read” of your session attendees, and being a flexible and creative problem solver in the moment. Even more importantly, when you take steps to ensure accessibility for your own session, your actions might very well influence the ideas of inclusion and accessibility within the overall conference environment as well!


* Resources for creating accessible materials (courtesy of Sina Bahram)


A woman with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair, wearing a red and white scarf around her neck and a red shirt.Diane Nutting works as a consultant at the intersections of disability, arts, and education—specializing in training design and facilitation, project coordination, and strategic planning. She has worked with artists and K-Adult students of all abilities as a teacher, administrator, and artistic collaborator; and also has extensive experience in conference settings as a conference coordinator, staff member, and avid session presenter.   She served for nine years as the Director of Access and Inclusion for Imagination Stage, working to provide accessible and inclusive performing arts experiences for all students, patrons, and artists.   

Using Art Education Effectively with Students who have Experienced Trauma

A photo of a woman with long, brown hair and dark rimmed glasses, wearing a short sleeved lavender shirt and chunky beaded necklace.

Donalyn Heise

In over 30 years of teaching visual art classes in K-12 settings, one student from early in Donalyn Heise’s career continues to drive her work. “This student made the top grade in every art assignment I gave, but I failed him as a teacher because I had no idea he was flunking out of school,” says Heise. She later learned that the student’s sister had committed suicide, and that he seldom attended classes or handed in assignments outside of art. This experience drove Heise to focus her own pedagogy on what she calls a “resilience framework,” using art education as a platform to help students thrive.

Many children experience psychological trauma, to include natural or environmental disasters, domestic or societal violence, bullying, homelessness, human trafficking, or rejection of sexual identity. Heise cites research by William Steele (2002), who found that youth who experience trauma may have emotional, mental, behavioral, and physical challenges that make them less likely to succeed in school.

Inspired by her early-career experience, Heise began to search for ways to use art education to help students who have experienced trauma thrive. She focused her classes not on the students’ trauma, but on ways to strengthen their resilience. Heise is quick to point out that her work is not art therapy, but teaching the content of the art project along with mastery of the technique. She explains, “We can teach landscape, shading, other artistic techniques along with how to use art to be a student’s visual voice.”

35 paper quilts are lined up together in 4 rows (3 rows of 9, 1 row of 8). The quilts are many colors, but mostly blue, yellow, pink, purple, and orange.

A display of paper quilts created in one of Donalyn Heise’s art classes.

One visual art activity Heise uses within her resilience framework is making paper quilts. In the lesson, students draw or paint 3”x3” paper squares while listening to different pieces of music. They discuss repetition in terms of the quilt patterns, and also reflect on the things in our lives that need to be repeated and those which do not.

After creating many squares, the students exchange them with their classmates; the squares which are exchanged form the outside border of each person’s quilt. For their center square, Heise asks students to think about a challenging time in their life (but not to draw it or say it aloud), then tells them to draw their source of strength in that challenging time. “Their strength is at the center of the quilt, and they are surrounded by their community, through the classmates’ squares,” she says, adding that the quilts can be brought together for a large display, but can also be taken apart so that students can take their individual quilt home.

Heise emphasizes the importance of trying to structure one’s art education practice to reach every student, regardless of his or her ability level or personal experience. One method she suggests is to offer many choice-based adaptations in the art classroom, and to offer the adaptations to every student. “I recommend having all the students try out adaptive tools, then allow them to opt in or out of using them. The same goes for other types of scaffolds: I make sure they are offered to every student. This helps reduce judgments and blurs the lines of disability,” says Heise.

Ultimately, Heise aims to help students feel safe and successful in the routines and materials found in the visual art classroom. She says, “By teaching flexibility, mastery of something, and a vision of the future throughout our art lessons, we help students articulate and celebrate their strengths and points of joy.” Through the resilience framework, Heise hopes to teach students both artistic technique and the valuable, intangible properties of the arts.


Donalyn Heise will co-present a session entitled “Using Art to Reach Students Who Have Experienced Trauma” with Adrienne D. Hunter and Beverley Holden Johns at the 2017 VSA Intersections: Art and Special Education Conference.

March 2016 VSA Webinar: “Poetry in Motion: A Poetry Dance Play for the Middle School Special Education Classroom Confirmation”

Poetry in Motion: A Poetry Dance Play for the Middle School Special Education Classroom, presented on March 8, 2016, explored lessons on how to engage a special education classroom in poetry and dance from thematic conception to culminating performance. As the roles of educators and learners in arts education continue to shift, teachers realize the limitless potential learners can have when provided with the right tools to motivate exploration and self-expression. Poetry and dance, two of the purest forms of self-expression and learning, exist in an intricate embrace of language and movement. This webinar aimed to foster an appreciation of this integration in the classroom and provide examples and practical how-to tips for your classroom.

Click on the play button below to watch a free recording of the Webinar. (You will be prompted to enter your email address and contact information prior to viewing the Webinar.)

March 2016


Nawal_Muradwij-Jenny_Seham_2-24 Jenny Seham, PhD is a dancer, actress, choreographer and clinical psychologist who writes about the benefits of the arts for diverse student populations. She introduces multiple arts opportunities to her students around the world, collaborating with diverse artists, teachers, and innovators. This has led to poetry, dance, music and visual arts projects from NYC to Los Angeles and in Mexico and Ecuador. 



Nawal_Muradwij-Nawal-23 Nawal Muradwij is both an MA candidate in Clinical Psychology and a poet. Her interest in integration of arts into education as well as her own past experience reaping the emotional and learning benefits of poetry offers a unique perspective on the topic.




Summary of Discussion Topics:

  • Diverse learners and multiple art forms
    • How do I teach an art form that is not my discipline?
    • Collaborate!
    • Encourage and set aside time for partner work
  • Poetry and dance
  • Poetry Dance Play: Strategies, Instructions, and Ideas
    • Find inspiring poems and poets
      • Ex. James Berry, Maya Angelou
    • Write poetry
  • Takeaways:
    • How to maximize the potential of diverse learners by integrating multiple art forms in the classroom
    • Specific strategies, exercises, and curricula utilizing poetry and dance in special education classrooms
    • How to step outside YOUR arts or educational expertise and consider ways to include less familiar art forms in your teaching
  • Contact:

Links and Resources:

We want to know-what did you learn from this webinar?



February 2016 VSA Webinar: “Creative Control: Arts, Self-Determination, and Student-led IEPs”

Creative Control: Arts, Self-Determination, and Student-led IEPS, presented February 9, 2016, explored the challenges students face to meet their IEP goals when they’re not at the table to determine what those goals should be, how they can best work towards them, or sometimes even why they have an IEP in the first place. Arts lessons and activities – including role play, creative writing, visual art portfolios, and peer critique – provide educators with a range of possibilities for documenting and assessing student progress, and offer multiple points of entry for students to engage meaningfully in their IEP process and develop the self-determination skills necessary for success in school and in life.

Click on the play button below to watch a free recording of the Webinar. (You will be prompted to enter your email address and contact information prior to viewing the Webinar.)

February 2016


N. Dearden_headshot As a Secondary Transition Specialist at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), Ms. Naté Dearden provided training to DC educators on how to promote student involvement and self-determination throughout the special education planning process. Ms. Dearden also led the Secondary Transition Community of Practice, a group of community stakeholders who advocate for improved post-school outcomes for youth with disabilities.



2016 VSA SchoolTalk webinar_Eliza Derick

Eliza Derick, Special Education Teacher, Eastern Senior High School, earned a Masters in Special Education from American University and a BA in Anthropology from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She has 10 years of arts-based instruction experience in special education classrooms from DCPS to The Lab School of Washington, and is certified through the DCPS Leadership Initiative For Teachers at the Advanced stage.


2016 VSA SchoolTalk webinar_Mo Thomas Mo Thomas, 8th Grade Inclusion Specialist, Two Rivers PCS, earned her B.A. in Communications from North Carolina State University, with a triple concentration in Theatre, Mass Communication/ Journalism, and Public and Interpersonal Communication.



S Oetgen_headshot Susan Oetgen, Arts & Conflict Resolution Specialist, SchoolTalk, facilitates a range of collaborative, interagency initiatives to promote self-determination and creativity in secondary transition planning with and for students with disabilities in District of Columbia schools.




Summary of Discussion Topics:

  •  Origin of Creative Arts in Student-led IEPs — April 2015
  • Takeaway 1: Student Self-Determination and Student-led IEPs
    • What is self-determination?
      • Knowing yourself, knowing what you want your future to look like and how to plan for it, and knowing the supports you will need to have control in your life
    • Research-Based Benefits:
      • Students develop stronger self-advocacy and self-determination skills which leads to self-confidence
      • Increased parent and general education teacher participation
    • Self-determination matters!
    • Impact of adult driven planning process:
      • Students don’t know they have a disability
      • Students often don’t know the reason for IEP meetings
      • Students report that they make few (if any) decisions at IEP meetings
      • Students don’t know what is expected of them during IEP meetings
    • What is a student-led IEP?
      • Meaningful participation in ALL stages of IEP development
      • Student takes a leadership and decision-making role
  • Takeaway 2: Arts = Strategies to Document and Assess Student IEP Goals
    • Role play
    • Student memoirs
    • Vocabulary rap
    • Creative projects and presentations used as mastery of IEP goals
    • Visual representations of self-awareness
  • Takeaway 3: Arts = Strategies to Cultivate Student Self-Determination and IEP Participation
    • Identity boxes
    • Vision boards
    • Artist statements
    • Spirit animals
    • Coat of arms
  • Our experience as educators

Links and Resources:

We want to know-what did you learn from this webinar?

January 2016 VSA Webinar: “Dance Across Cultural Paradigms with Bhangra—a Folk Dance from India”

Dance Across Cultural Paradigms with Bhangra—a Folk Dance from India, presented January 26, 2016, taught educators how to incorporate aspects of culture through music, language, storytelling, and attire into a dance residency for students with a variety of physical, cognitive, and behavioral disabilities. Participants learned ways to expand their toolbox of sensory and kinesthetic methods with strategies that can be applied to explore various areas of expertise. This webinar targeted all professors, teachers, artists, administrators, and paradigm shifters. The presenter, Mala Desai, offered a special invitation to experienced artists immersed in practicing traditional and folk arts from diverse cultures to expand arts learning for students with disabilities.

Click on the play button below to watch a free recording of the Webinar. (You will be prompted to enter your email address and contact information prior to viewing the Webinar.)

January 2016


Mala_Desai-Mala2VSABorn in New Delhi, India, Mala Desai is a teacher of Odissi and Folk Dances from India since 1995. She is currently a Teaching Artist with Marquis Studios, on the dance faculty of Young Indian Culture Group, and Artistic Director of Mala’s School of Odissi Dance. She is also a professional NYS Licensed Social Worker and an ABA Therapist for Early Intervention services.

Summary of Discussion Topics:

  • What is “Bhangra”
  • Simplification of step
    • Side toe step with arm rolls
    • Heel dig with arm movements
    • Hop with arm movements
    • Hamstrung curl with arms swaying low and high
    • Squats and jumps with arm movements
    • Side bends with lateral stretch
  • Marquis Studios Residency
    • 10 sessions
    • 4-6 classes per day
    • Max 35 students per class
    • Co-teaching strategy when possible
    • Performance as final session
  • NYC District 75
  • Various student disabilities
  • What happens each session:
    • Greeting
    • Brief overview
    • Warm-up
    • Dance steps
    • Dancing to rhythm/music
    • Something NEW today
    • Cool-down
  • Goals: Physical movement, engage all students, participation by all students
  • Anatomical movement planes:
    • Sagittal
    • Frontal
    • Transverse
  • Count of 4
  • Stick-figures as cues and connections
  • Learning the “L”
  • Different warm-up music
    • Beats
    • Ho Jayegi Balle Balle
    • JaiHo-Treasure
  • To engage:
    • Name
    • Collaboration
    • Sensory stimulation:
      • Music
      • Tools
      • Visuals
      • Words
      • Costumes (very important for participation!)
      • Toys: scarves, o-ball, stretchy band, bells, and tambourines

Links and Resources:

We want to know-what did you learn from this webinar?

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.

Early Childhood Arts Education for Students with Disabilities

A student artist in an ACT visual art class creates a sensory bag.

A student artist in an ACT visual art class creates a sensory bag. She is measuring out the ingredients, adding them to the bag, and then mixing them through play.

Lifelong arts engagement is often mentioned with regard to arts and aging, but is equally valuable for the youngest members of society. The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently released a report entitled The Arts in Early Childhood that examines the many benefits of arts education for the very young. At Artists Creating Together in Grand Rapids, Michigan, they have long known what the NEA study tells us: that arts participation in early childhood is strongly linked to social skills development and emotion regulation ability.


Artists Creating Together (ACT) began their Early Childhood Art Exploration program for children ages 3-5 as a partnership with Grand Rapids Public Schools over fifteen years ago. According to ACT Executive Director Angela Steele, the program serves both students with more severe, multiple disabilities who will not be mainstreamed and students with disabilities in an inclusive setting. For the 2015-2016 school year, ACT has expanded the program to include two new school districts.


Students play drums in an ACT class.

A student artist in an ACT visual art class creates a sensory bag. She is measuring out the ingredients, adding them to the bag, and then mixing them through play.

In the classes for students with severe disabilities, ACT brings three local, professional teaching artists in to work with the students. One of the professionals is a visual artist who focuses on sensory art. Steele says the visual arts instruction is “…all about process and product comes second.” ACT also hires a drumming instructor who offers the students a lot of different percussion tools to utilize to make music. The third artist works with the students on creative movement and dance, implementing teaching and occupational therapy goals with movement. According to Steele, the movement comes in many forms. She says, “For some students it’s a head nod, for others it’s moving around the room with scarves. Wings, shakers, and other tools can also help facilitate movement.”


For the current school year, ACT has expanded its early childhood program to include a school with both a Montessori classroom and a special education classroom. ACT is offering its arts classes to inclusive groups of 28 students from both classrooms, with half of the students from the Montessori program and half from the special education program. These inclusive arts classes adopted a theme of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book by Eric Carle. They are exploring lessons in creative movement, visual art, drumming, dramatic play, and the art of gardening/nature.


A girl participates in an ACT creative movement class.

A student artist in an ACT visual art class creates a sensory bag. She is measuring out the ingredients, adding them to the bag, and then mixing them through play.

Steele says the large, combined classes posed an initial challenge to the teaching artists, but they are motivated by the positive student response to the inclusive setting. She shared a story about the special education students arriving in the arts classroom first, then having a hard time settling into a spot on the large circle on the floor because they are so excited. Once the Montessori students arrive, everyone has an easier time establishing routine and finding spots, as the students respond to peer models and take up peer norms.


When asked what ACT has learned over the years, Steele cites their improving student engagement and assessing growth. “Despite the fact that some students have very limited movement, there are ways we can adapt the art instruction itself so all are included – it can be through vocalizations or sounds or eye movements or not letting go of materials. So we’ve learned throughout the years how to pick up on student engagement when they are unable to communicate in the typical way,” says Steele.


ACT also looks at artistic, cognitive, and social development in every art form over the course of its engagement with each student. Every adult teacher and paraprofessional completes a program evaluation before and after each art form unit, assessing changes in the students. Steele reports that the evaluations have not only been helpful for ACT, but also to the schools for report cards.


More than anything, Steele says the biggest lesson of the Early Childhood Art Exploration program is the real impact art can have on very young students with disabilities. As the NEA study concludes, there is compelling support for a positive relationship between early childhood arts participation and the development of important social and emotional skills.