Students with Disabilities

Students with physical, emotional, cognitive, or learning disabilities often respond powerfully to arts education. For students with communication challenges, arts education can provide meaningful outlets for nonverbal expression. For students with emotional disorders, it can provide a means of learning to productively channel and express profound emotions. For students with physical disabilities, the arts can provide opportunities for outstanding achievement. And for teachers, the arts offer a uniquely rewarding platform for connecting with these students.

Reaching the Goal of Full Inclusion

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) aims for full inclusion of students with disabilities, a goal that benefits all students. Every student with a disability is assessed annually by a team of education professionals, in cooperation with the student’s parents, and then provided with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). This plan identifies learning goals for the student as well as the special supports and services required to meet those goals. The IEP guides the teacher in adapting teaching techniques and curriculum to meet individual student needs. This important tool helps the teacher build on students’ abilities rather than focus on their disabilities. While the IEP is one element of a quality education for each child with a disability, another is the knowledge and comfort level of the educator who teaches students with disabilities. To meet its goal of successful inclusion, CPS offers teachers professional development training through the Office of Specialized Services.

Strategies for Successful Inclusion

What are successful strategies for creating inclusive learning environments? Schools in which the principals, teachers, and other staff strive to learn about the unique needs of all students are more successful in their inclusion efforts. These educators encourage communication among faculty, parents, and specialists as they identify and implement appropriate strategies for their students with disabilities. Collaboration is an important part of the process. Teachers work together to develop lessons that have the critical supports needed so that these students will meet curricular goals. Keeping in mind their visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners, teachers plan ahead for authentic assessment and take steps to address these multiple intelligences for all students. To monitor the effectiveness of the strategies and lessons, they participate in team meetings and use other methods of sharing information.

Student self-evaluation is often a useful strategy. When planning a unit or lesson, teachers encourage students to provide feedback about how successfully they used particular strategies in the past. With this information, the teacher can modify a lesson by incorporating more effective strategies. Many teachers find it helpful to ask students with physical disabilities which classroom resources will best address their needs. This early groundwork helps teachers to better understand students’ capabilities and to recognize opportunities to offer them choices, a practice that increases students’ confidence. Teachers rely on information gained from student self-evaluations to help them develop realistic goals and assessments.

Students with disabilities will benefit from many strategies that are commonly used when teaching students in the general population. Teachers offer empathy rather than judgment as they become increasingly familiar with students’ perceptions and use that information to modify their instruction. For students who have difficulty with fluent communication, teachers provide adequate “wait” time so that students can respond appropriately. Knowing that some students with disabilities have difficulty with abstract concepts, teachers provide simple, concrete directions; break down lessons into clear, attainable tasks; and use concrete examples during instruction. They eliminate environmental distractions for students who have difficulty concentrating. As teachers strive to improve outcomes in many classroom settings for all students, they maintain high expectations and keep students’ strengths uppermost in their minds.

A Rich Learning Community

An inclusive classroom is a rich learning community for all its members. Regular-education students in inclusion classrooms demonstrate an increased acceptance of individual differences, higher self-esteem, and a strong willingness to forge friendships. Underachieving students benefit from the clarity and feedback provided by teachers of students with disabilities. These benefits are sustained when teachers nurture effective communication within the classroom and incorporate ongoing progress monitoring for every student.

Students with disabilities often are grouped together, yet each student is unique. Teachers observe how students demonstrate different strengths as they face a variety of challenges in the inclusion classroom. How do teachers choose from the wide range of teaching strategies at their disposal to successfully address those differences? Teachers first assess whether student learning will be achieved through remediation or accommodation. Strategies for remediation focus on adapting how a lesson is taught. Remediation techniques include adding visual aids and using task analysis, signals, or sign language. Strategies for accommodation focus on changes to the lesson content itself.

During arts education instruction, students demonstrate specific physical, emotional, and learning differences. These suggested teaching strategies emphasize student strengths as they help students learn through remediation or accommodation approaches.

Strategies for Remediation

Strategies for Accommodation

Students with disabilities may find it difficult to appropriately express themselves when a learning environment is not supporting their success. Teachers can look for underlying causes when a struggling student avoids the lesson or refuses to participate. Is the student distracted? Is the physical or verbal “acting out” a signal that the student is frustrated with a requirement of the lesson? Teachers who respond to signs of discomfort and frustration with patient, clear, individualized attention maximize students’ potential for achievement.

Arts education has proven advantages for students with disabilities. Educators report evidence that music improves cognitive functions, visual art is a conduit that visually impaired or blind students use to articulate a hidden inner landscape, theater helps students with autism learn to express emotion, and dance allows students who struggle with verbal communication to express themselves physically. By focusing on students’ abilities rather than their limitations, teachers of the arts can play a critically important role in helping these students learn, grow, and succeed.