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"The arts are the great equalizer in education. Regardless of native language, ability, or disability, music, art, and drama are accessible to all" (Gregoire, 2005, p.159).
The federal legislation that governs individuals with disabilities in schools began in 1975 with the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, was then renamed in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), was reauthorized in 1997 and again reauthorized with modifications in 2004. This longstanding legislation has as one of its core principals the concept of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). LRE mandates that students with disabilities be educated, as much as possible, alongside their normally developing peers. Over the last 35 years, politicians and educators have struggled with how to implement the LRE provision and as educational trends have progressed through the years, the conceptualization of LRE has moved from a position of mainstreaming students to the current policy of inclusion.
Throughout the changes in conceptualization, including identified students with normally developing peers in nonacademic classes has been a constant. Initially, the LRE mandate was conceptualized as a provision that would provide socialization opportunities. For lawmakers and the courts, art classes have traditionally been perceived as a nonacademic setting (Schiller, 1999) and therefore have been a place where students with and without disabilities have learned side by side. As efforts to increase accountability of educational standards in schools threatened the continued existence of arts programming, stakeholders in maintaining the arts in education responded. Research about the benefits of engagement in the arts has begun to surface as well as national standards to guide instruction.
Historical Origins of Art Education
The goals of art education have changed over time due to the changing perceptions and needs of society. Kraft (2006), an art instructor and researcher, has identified the changing focus of art education practices in recent history. She believes that teacher education programs need to do a better job at preparing art teachers for inclusive classrooms and national art standards. For example it was noted that the growth of factories during the Industrial Revolution brought on a demand for skilled workers, thus 19th-century teachers emphasized drawing skills believing that it would improve the hand-eye coordination needed for factory work. In the early 1900s, art programs included the study of the great masters of painting and sculpture, hoping to encourage in students’ moral values and behavior that was socially productive. Early in the 20th century, the growth in the field of psychology and the ensuing child-study movement brought an interest in children's spontaneous drawings thinking that they would provide a window into the child’s mental and emotional growth. From that point onward, engagement in the arts was viewed as a source of personal and creative expression.
In the latter half of the 20th century, as educational authorities began to adapt standards for all core curriculum areas, many states began to revise art curriculums. By the start of the 21st century, the National Standards for Visual Arts Education was implemented, emphasizing a comprehensive approach to art education by integrating art throughout the school curriculum.
Visual Arts Education: National Standards
The current framework for visual arts standards exposes students to a range of subject matter, images and visual expressions. Through experimentation students reflect, solve problems and are encouraged to express thoughts and feelings, as well as evaluate their own efforts in the process. Utilizing this framework, students’ understandings of visual arts concepts and fluency with the communication of ideas are developed and encouraged (Herberholz, 2010). The National Art Education Association (NAEA) has defined the role of a visual art curriculum with six content and achievement standards ensuring a comprehensive art program for K-12. The standards are:
understanding and applying media, techniques and processes.
using knowledge of structures and junctions.
choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols and ideas.
understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.
reflecting on and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others.
making connections between visual arts and other disciplines.
The Development of Reflection and Connection in the Art Classroom
The inclusive art class should seek to provide opportunities for all students to develop a sense of empowerment, self-determination and self-actualization (Kraft, 2006). In this way because students are making their own choices, consulting with others in order to problem solve effective solutions, and monitoring their own progress toward completion of a project, they begin to feel committed to and invested in their work. Kraft (2006) notes that art educators should examine their classes for indicators of:
academic benefit — domain specific content material that is taught and reinforced
opportunities for productive contribution to a class community
a support structure that encourages productive contribution
perceptions of what is an efficient use of time in the classroom
The design of the art class curriculum and program should place an emphasis on students’ strengths and contributions. A sense of skill and mastery is achieved as students are allowed to reflect on their own ideas and plan projects in a collaborative manner with teachers and other members of the classroom community. Additionally, interpersonal connections are forged as students act as models and support for classmates. These interactions break down barriers, fostering productive contributions to the classroom and building a classroom community.
Benefits of Exposure to the Arts for Students with Learning Disabilities (LD)
All too frequently, students with LD struggle to find a place in school that they feel effective and successful. Diket (2003) has noted that for many students who are considered at-risk for whatever reason, the arts can be an entry point; a place where success can be experienced, connections made and sense of belonging fostered. Patricia Polacco, beloved author of children’s books, has recounted her own experiences with undiagnosed LD. “The rest of the world was perfect, I thought, but there was something terribly wrong with me. Art was my one and only claim to my humanity, to something that made my soul sing” (Polacco, 2001, p.31). Ms. Polacco’s perspective, supported by many, is that the internal life of children is given voice through the arts and that teachers need to make the arts a regular part of their classroom curriculums.
Finding places in a school setting where students’ ideas and efforts are valued is important for all children, but especially valuable for students with LD. Children with LD frequently have difficulties with not only academic achievement, but also with social relationships. In an art classroom, teachers of students with LD are in a position to foster successful experiences both interpersonally as well as academically. Understanding the importance of reflection and connections in school settings with the ability to implement strategies to improve skills and foster success for individuals with LD is within reach for all teachers. Teachers with concerns about a child with LD in their classroom who are looking for ways to create successful experiences should consult with the special educators, school psychologists and other interested personnel within their own school for other ideas and guidance.
Diket, R.M. (2003). The arts contribution to adolescent learning. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 39(4), 173-177.
Gregoire, M.A. (2005, Summer). Supporting diversity through the arts. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 41(4), 159-162.
Herberholz, B. (2010, September). ... when we Review the National Visual Arts Standards. Arts and Activities, 148(1), 18.
Kraft, M. (2006). Art education and disability: Re-envisioning educational efficiency. The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education, 26, 302-324.
Polacco, P. (2001, Jan/Feb.). A chance to soar. Instructor, 110(5), 31.
Schiller, M. (1999). Access to art education: Ethical and legal perspectives. In A.L. Nyman & A.. Jenkins (Eds.), Issues and Approaches to Art for Students with Special Needs, (p.7-16). Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.
Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences, published articles on students with exceptional needs, friendship and teacher attitudes, and has co-authored a book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk (2008).