The Power of the Arts in Special Education

The Power of the Arts in Special Education
boy with glasses and his arms crossed with some muscle arms drawn in chalk behind him

The Power of the Arts in Special Education

March 2021 | Issue #22

It is easy to forget that drawing, music, and dancing are ancient forms of expression. They were present in our earliest communities. What happens to our brains with art? Why do we engage in it at all? New studies reveal that the arts may prime our neural circuitry for a much broader range of activities and crucial tasks, boosting cognitive and social functions like mental focus, spoken and written language, self-control, and empathy.

The idea that the arts are merely extra-curriculars, while deeply ingrained, is frivolous! Increasingly, research shows that the arts are powerful tools for making sense of the world and not so terribly different from mathematics or writing.

For students with disabilities, knowledge and skill development gained through the arts can play a crucial role in their overall success. Nancy Bailey, a special education teacher and blogger, stated, “If inclusion is the goal for students with disabilities, as has been described in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, then art classes should be a high priority. The arts can level the playing field because children with difficulties in academic subjects might excel at drawing, painting, acting, or dancing, and singing.” A study in 2018 found that drawing what you were learning was far superior to writing, and beat out other techniques, such as, visualizing, even if you were just producing simple sketches. Therefore, asking your students to draw as they compose stories, or learn about cells or the solar system, pay big dividends in the end.

As educators, it is important to remember that the arts can help students with disabilities in many ways, including:

  • Building fine-motor and problem-solving skills
  • Enhancing communication and expression
  • Promoting self-esteem and motivation to succeed

When we think about “building the whole child” and helping them become an independent member of society, we must consider those post-secondary domains that involve employment and independent living. District 75 of the New York City Department of Education implements an arts-based education program that services students with moderate/severe disabilities. The district created a work-based learning program in their special education classrooms that utilizes the arts as a medium to practice and acquire transferable career-related skills. The district developed a “Decorative Design Micro-Enterprise” program that focuses on visual arts, specifically textile creations. Students in the program engage in the making of giftware from canvas and wallpaper materials. They engage in the preparation of base materials, pattern making, working with glazes, stencils, stamps, and finishing and packaging their final product at a professional level.

The employment and independent skills that students of District 75 have learned through art-based education can be generalized to a job-based opportunity when they graduate from their high schools. The skills that their students develop through the program include:

  • Customer service training
  • Communication service training
  • Teamwork and team building
  • Sales – creating a material budget and marketing of created products

The knowledge and skills their students gain in textile creation include:

  • Sealing canvas/wallpaper
  • Painting large areas with rollers
  • Pattern making and design
  • Using painting tools appropriately
  • Package preparation and presentation
  • Safety and independence in a work environment

When it comes to creative movement and dance, another New York organization known as ZCO/Dance Project provides the opportunity for children with disabilities to audition and perform original dances before a live audience. ZCO/Dance Project is a physically integrated dance company spear-headed by its artist director and founder, Zazel Chavah O’Garra. The company’s mission is to encourage the integration and inclusion of people with disabilities in society through the creation and performance of original dance work with artistic distinction. The company consists of dancers who have Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, Osteogenesis Imperfecta, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Spinal Cord Injury. According to O’Garra, building an integrated dance company:

  • Removes attitudinal barriers
  • Reduces prejudices, and stereotyping
  • Increases self-esteem
  • Equips the company members with valuable life skills

Our federal and state governments have taken on a profound interest in arts education. Twenty years ago, The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in cooperation with The Arts Education Partnership (a private, nonprofit coalition of more than 100 national organizations that promote arts education) developed the Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning initiative. The study consisted of seven teams of researchers that examined a variety of arts education programs using diverse methodologies. Their results indicated that learners were able to attain high levels of achievement when engaged with the arts, especially among students from marginalized communities. Their studies proved that engagement in the arts –whether it was through dance, music, theater, or other disciplines – nurtures the development of cognitive, social, and personal competencies.

Most recently, on July 8, 2020, the CA State Board of Education, along with the input and focus from the Instructional Quality Commission and public input, adopted the new 2020 California Arts Framework for Public Schools. Each of the five art disciplines’ chapters include “explanations and examples of modifications and accommodations for serving (students with disabilities)”, as well as, “examples for how to differentiate instruction,” which were not contained in the original California Arts Standards.

The arts act as an access point for all students to explore complex skills and processes that educators are trying to teach. Art educator and author, MaryAnn F. Kohl, once stated, “Art is as natural as sunshine and as vital as nourishment.” The arts are powerful to students’ learning experiences and essential to human life. They are a way we make sense of the world around us.


Check out these additional resources for great examples.

California Arts Framework Guidelines

Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development

Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning

Preparing Students with Disabilities for Careers in the Arts Approaches for Arts Education