Dec 9, 2013

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Who Else Wants to Better Serve Their Students with Special Needs?

Editor’s Note: Join us this week for a great discussion about students with special needs. We’ll be sharing the latest in product innovation, tips for writing dynamic lesson plans and some heartfelt personal stories. In addition, don’t miss out on our great giveaway where you could win some seriously cool tools for your art room!


A group of students walk into your room, eager to begin art class, when one of the students comes up to you, thrusts a chart in your face and says “Here, you have to fill this out.” YIKES! No heads up! No warning! No clue what to do with this (sticker, smiley face, token system) chart.

We know there are great systems in our schools to help students that have behavioral, social or academic special needs succeed within the school day, but sometimes the art teacher is the last to know.

How do we understand and adapt for ALL learners in the classroom?  We can’t always wait to be invited to an IEP meeting (like never!) or wait for a meeting to be scheduled by our special needs teacher with us (gasp – does this actually happen?). Everyone is busy, but you have a right to know and understand what is going on in the lives students who need a little something extra to succeed in the classroom. Sometimes we must take matters in our own hands, get inventive, and use one of our best assets, our INSTINCT to better serve our students.

All product / image links embedded below

All product / image links embedded below

I had a chance to talk with Kathy (who is the art educator/inventor behind this weeks’ giveaway) and she and I brainstormed some great ideas to help you think differently about how you approach serving special needs students in your art room.

Here are some creative ways to innovate in order to reach leaners in your classroom.

1. Start by what ISN’T working. Is the crayon constantly rolling into the lap of your student in a wheelchair? Get crayons that aren’t cylindrical shaped so they stay on the table. Is the glue bottle frustrating a student to the point of tears? It may not be worth it. Try a glue sponge instead! Tiny tweaks can make or break the art experience for some students.

2. Research Universal Design (UD). This philosophy in education believes in setting up parameters so ALL students can be successful without traditional ‘adaptions.’ Everyone can be successful with the same tools! This is good stuff!

3. Look Around You. In the supermarket, in the gym, in your home. Are there tools around you that you can grab and use in the art room in new ways? How about loading up scrub brushes meant for dishes with paint and letting a student with limited fine motor skills use them as a painting tool?

4. Learn about new products - Did you know they make glue bottles that act like bingo daubers? It’s hard to find time to dive deep enough into the catalog or ask the special needs teacher what they use in the gen ed classroom. Don’t take for granted those smarties who have come before you and thought of something inventive to help assist students.

4. ASK! Instead of waiting around and huffing and puffing that no one ever includes you on important matters, YOU set up a meeting with THEM to get your questions answered. I had a school nurse who sat down with me and went over every.single.kid’s health issues. Did I need to know that Timmy got a sliver last year? No. But it was very helpful to know about sight issues (seat them in front) or bathroom issues (let them go RIGHT AWAY).

5. Invent something yourself. Do like Kathy, and think beyond what exists. Even if you have to jerry rig it up in your garage, make something special for your students that you KNOW will work better than the ‘one size fits all’ alternatives that currently exist.

Remember to use the rest of your right brain. You are an inventor, a creator, and can leverage this within your own classroom to shape the experience for your students for the better.

What are some tried and true ideas you have for reaching out and better understanding the needs of your students? 

Any closet inventors out there? Tell us about it!




Jessica-RoundThis article was written by AOE Founder and President Jessica Balsley. Jessica is a passionate thought-leader in the field of Art Ed, and a tireless advocate of helping Art Teachers get the ‘Ridiculously Relevant’ PD they deserve.

About Jessica | Jessica’s Articles

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  • Lauren Behar

    For all you stencil haters- I teach art to ONLY children with special needs, and frequently I find that stencils are a great way to get kids started to making successful art. I custom make stencils for many projects- and not just for drawing, I use them for clay, for chalk pastels, for printmaking and more. I also offer them as options- kids who don’t want to use them don’t have to and those who want/ need to can.

    Step-by-step breaking it down with plenty of visuals, minimal language, and modeling is the key, because kids often can’t retain so many steps in their memory. This would probably be helpful for typical kids too.

    The OTs at my school also love it when I use small things like tiny pieces of oil pastels, chalk pastels and really short pencils for young kids to work on finger strength- especially those who haven’t developed a pencil grip yet. It forces them to put those 3 fingers together creating the triangular basis for a pencil grip.

    • Jessica Balsley

      Your job sounds fascinating and rewarding. You have so many great ideas to share, and we are glad you stopped by AOE to chat about it! I am also happy you brought up tracers. Teaching art isn’t ‘one size fits all’ and a tracer can be a perfect way to practice fine motor and help kids feel successful.

  • Georganna Tomkins

    I have a student with limited sight and I found that letting him work on a light board helps him see better when he colors or draws.

    • Jessica Balsley

      Great idea, Georganna! There are some great DIY light board options out there if you don’t have the budget to spring for a real one.

  • Lauren Behar

    For students with limited sights- outlining (lines to cut) in thick red seem to help. White materials on black paper are also easier for her to see.