Children's Voice November/
December 2008

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

By Ellen Notbohm

ART-ful Teaching for Different Learners

Art can be a wonderful, expressive medium for all children, but for those who have language, emotional, or neurological challenges, art activities can be especially meaningful. Art can open the lines of communication for children with limited verbal skills and provide opportunities for tactile development, visual organization, fine motor control, and hand-eye coordination. Producing a vibrant, tangible product fosters their self-esteem. And, many children who experience cognitive, emotional, or other learning challenges are highly gifted artistically and even go on to make a living doing so.

Teachers and parents can encourage children to explore their art potential in many ways. These creative ideas come from art therapists and paraeducators:

Don't assume that a child has any prior experience with art. Some children may relate only to realistic, photographic images and need instruction in working with illustration and abstract images. Begin introducing your child or student to drawing by taping a clear laminate piece over a photograph and having her trace it, using a felt pen that wipes off easily. This helps her learn about edges, shapes, and concrete objects, and she can be successful with the finished tracing.

Joint drawings can encourage a child to add detail they might not think of on their own. The adult can start the drawing--say, a house--then the child and adult can take turns adding details like windows, doors, grass, flowers, a weathervane, chimney, birds, mailbox, clouds, or a bike in the driveway. Let it go on as long as the child maintains interest. Then come back to it another day and add yet more details. Pair verbal language with each detail as it's drawn; practice spelling, pronouns, or imagination. The educational options are endless.

Provide a model to help the child draw something specific. "When a fabric mural was being created with an artist-in-residence, my student was to choose an animal to depict," says art therapist/paraeducator Lucy Courtney. "He had a picture of the real animal he chose but still his drawing was not a recognizable ant. Then I drew the ant as he watched. I left him alone and he drew an ant that looked very much like mine--a believable ant."

Step-by-step drawing is also helpful. This can be a whole class activity with a teacher leading.

Offer different mediums. One child may like the control and pressure needed to use colored pencils. Another child may prefer the ease of felt pens--instant color without needing to use pressure. Some may enjoy chalk drawing, particularly if you paint an untextured wall with chalkboard/blackboard paint and provide chalk sticks of varying widths and colors. Crayons may be more difficult; it is harder to control the edges, and pressure is needed to get good color. Paint is even harder to control, and can be messy. Art projects have to be achievable and make sense to the child. Otherwise, the task may get done but with an obvious disconnection, ergo no benefit.

Art can segue into writing. Daily journal writing was painstaking for one little second-grade boy. Each day he would draw a train car with the single sentence, "My train is good." When pressed to write a second sentence, he would add something generic like, "It is cool." Courtney noticed that while the writing was static, the drawings were taking on ever more detail: cars became either boxcars or flat cars with added features on the wheels, more cars were added to the train, and people began appearing in them. The drawings continued to progress, even as the writing stayed stagnant--until the following year, when the floodgates opened and the child began writing a screenplay!

Art can open the door to communication for children who are nonverbal or otherwise cannot express their feelings. In one heartbreaking example, a paraeducator worked on a clay project for weeks with a nonverbal child. The school suspected the father of child abuse, but couldn't prove anything. Week after week the child worked soundlessly away on a sculpture of a dark, gaunt figure. One day, the silence broke. He noticed another child watching him and said, "My mom is mean to me."

Art can provide a visual medium for story creation. Children can be encouraged to create characters and several drawings depicting their characters in various situations. Concepts like sequencing and predicting can be taught using these visual representations.

Author and columnist Ellen Notbohm is a three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist, and a contributor to numerous publications and websites around the world. To contact Ellen or explore her work, visit

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