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Teaching art to students with emotional/behavioral disorders.

It is not possible to learn the skills needed for teaching art to special-needs students in a few sessions of a standard art-methods course. Art education students require a separate course to teach students with specific disorders. The need for such a course is substantiated by factors such as the dramatic increase in the number of students identified as handicapped, mainstreaming, and Regular Education Initiative (REI), a movement to integrate classes of regular and special education students to better and more economically serve all students. As a result, art teachers will be responsible for the education of increasing numbers of handicapped students. The critical issue is determining the most expedient way to prepare teachers to meet this challenge.

Categories of Learners

Special-education literature generally categorizes handicapped learners as mentally retarded, physically impaired or emotionally disturbed. The category of mentally retarded can be broken down into mildly, moderately or severely retarded. The category of physically impaired can be broken down into learning disabled or orthopedically impaired, neurologically, visually or hearing impaired. Although there is no consensus for classifying the emotionally disturbed, some psychologists and educators recommended classifying them as suffering from conduct disorder, anxiety-withdrawal behavior, immaturity or socialized aggression (acting out), allowing for individual differences within each classification.

The Mainstreaming Course

In most teacher-preparation programs, a course in mainstreaming is now required for certification. This course is designed to introduce preservice teachers to the concept of mainstreaming, different handicapping conditions and the associated learning, social/emotional behavioral characteristics. The course focuses on practical methods and techniques for adapting various subject areas (math, social studies, science, language, music and art) for mainstreamed, handicapped students.

Although informative, the course has limited value. Student teachers need a course where they can gain hands-on experience with diverse populations of special-needs students, helping them to develop two important aspects of teaching handicapped students: skills and attitudes.

Art Methods for Special Education

In a course focusing on special education, each handicapping condition should be treated separately. The following format is suggested: definition and characteristics of the impairment; educational approaches; strategies for art programming; and suggested art media, materials and activities. Activities taught within each handicapping condition should address adaptation to meet group and individual needs. The following outlines emotional/behavioral disorders:

Definition and Characteristics of

Emotional/Behavioral Disorders.

This condition adversely affects students' educational and social experience and results in an inability to learn. Behavior deviates from age-appropriate norms, and range from immature or withdrawn behavior to aggressive acting out. This maladaptive behavior interferes with their development, and negatively impacts those with whom they interact, often making them social outcasts.

To be prepared to teach this population, it is critical that teachers develop attitudes different from those required for most students. It comes as no surprise that teachers with mainstreamed classes find these students to be the most undesirable. This attitude may be exacerbated by anxiety due to a lack of confidence and skills in managing these students. In this situation, skills in behavior management and adapting materials and techniques are critical.

Classroom Management. A classroom environment that is well-organized, highly structured, predictable, yet tolerant and flexible will prevent frustration and potential eruptions. Examples of good classroom management are setting up rules, regulations and routines, and establishing the parameters of acceptable behavior.

Behavior Management. Aggressive behavior in the classroom (hitting, yelling, refusing to take directions, etc.) requires behavior management - a key factor in establishing a climate where effective art teaching can occur. Students who behave aggressively are frequently faced with teacher disdain, criticism and punishment. The teacher who reacts to aggressive behavior with inconsistency, delayed reactions, or attempts to ignore such occurrences will likely elicit more aggression in the student.

Behaviorists and social-learning advocates view aggression as learned behavior. They believe it is possible to teach students to respond more appropriately with nonaggressive responses. Examples are setting up conditions where negative behavior is not met with support by other students and "time-out" or "social isolation" for brief periods.

It has been found that these students benefit from a structured and predictable environment, where there are clearly established parameters of acceptable behavior. A different set of skills is needed to respond appropriately to students who manifest immature or withdrawn behavior. Regardless of classification, each student is an individual and presents different problems; no one technique can be applied to all.

Limitations. Successful lessons for students with emotional/behavior disorders involve art programming: limiting movement around the classroom, materials (amounts and choices), number of steps for each activity, time allotted each session and the number of sessions required to complete an activity.

At the beginning of the term, it is advisable to select experiences that have a high success factor, which can be completed within a single session. As students acclimate, activities that extend over several sessions can be introduced. Although limitations are necessary, providing students with choices is imperative for authentic art expressions. This includes decision making and organizing ideas and feelings - factors that can contribute to their artistic growth and possibly modify their responses.

Activities, Techniques and Materials. These should be based on age-appropriate considerations, combined with a realistic appraisal of the student's behavioral response. Art activities that present a modicum of challenge should be selected so that students experience a sense of pride and accomplishment.

The Art Teacher as Facilitator. The aforementioned factors are not effective unless the art teacher has the necessary temperament. Flexibility, sensitivity, patience and empathy - attributes generally associated with good teaching - are crucial. Teachers must tolerate aggression and rejection without withdrawing or responding negatively. They must be sensitive to signs of frustration that may materialize into a student outburst. Despite the negative or lack of response from students, teachers must maintain trust in their intuition, techniques and interventions.

A Special Course

The following is a case study of a course funded by a grant from the Guggenheim Museum's Learning through the Arts Program. Although the course deals with only one condition, it can serve as a model for courses that deal with other disorders. The results demonstrate the value of the program.

The first time this course was offered, it was on an experimental basis. The class was composed of ten art education majors who were each randomly assigned to teach one of ten children, ages eight to twelve, classified as emotionally/behaviorally disordered.

Before the first meeting, the university students were assigned text pertaining to emotional/behavioral disorders. They also met with the supervisor of the special-education unit from a local public school who reviewed characteristics pertaining to these disorders, and how the condition may manifest itself in the classroom. She also gave them a little background on the students participating in the program. She stated that a number of the youngsters had a history of family neglect, and/or sexual, physical or emotional abuse. Some came from broken homes or had parents who were substance abusers. She advised them to remember that they were preparing to become art teachers, not art therapists, and cautioned them that it was not their place to analyze the artwork, no matter how evocative they found it to be. If the artwork seemed particularly bizarre, however, they were instructed to contact her immediately.

For eleven weeks, the children, accompanied by a special-education teacher, came to the college twice a week for one-hour sessions. The half-hour before the pupil's arrival was devoted to discussion and preparation; the half-hour after was utilized for sharing, evaluating and writing individual reports.

Thematic Content

The thematic content was divided into three phases, each focusing on one of the following aspects of the youths' experiences: Myself, Me and Others, and Me and My Environment. The goal was to provide authentic art experiences that would broaden the students' frame of reference from a sole concern with self, to the self and others, and the self in relation to the larger environment.

Phase I: Myself was designed to make students more aware of their physical bodies - parts, functions and actions. Phase 2: Me and Others centered on activities with friends or family. Phase 3: Me and My Environment introduced activities on experiencing their environment (e.g., the home, school, playground). Activities included drawing, painting, collage, construction and modeling. The projects introduced first were designed to be completed within one session. As students demonstrated an ability to maintain interest, projects that extended over two or more sessions were introduced. Each session was ended with a dictated or written story about the artwork. Most students resisted writing, but agreed to dictate to their instructor.

The objectives for the course were: (1) To give student teachers experience with handicapped students under supervision, and to introduce them to a thematic approach to art instruction. (2) To have handicapped youngsters use art skills to represent ideas and feelings, and to talk about their art with their instructors.

Most activities were designed to be executed on an individual basis; some required a partner to foster social interaction and cooperation. Two youngsters and two student instructors sat at each table, allowing for informal conversation, exchange of materials and the possibility of children helping one another.

Although specific activities were planned for each session, instructors were informed that they were free to modify the activity if they felt it did not meet the needs, interests or abilities of the youngster. It was stressed that accommodation to the individual learner was particularly important when instructing special-needs students. At the beginning, instructors tended to adhere to the plan; as they gained confidence and came to know the children, they modified the time for the activity, substituted methods or materials, and even changed subject matter.

Although an hour was allotted for each activity, the students were not expected to remain on task that long, based on the literature describing short attention spans, low frustration levels and periodic emotional outbursts. To offset potential problems, regulations were clearly presented at the beginning of the first session.

To everyone's relief, the program went smoothly from the start. The children became involved in their activities and there was little need to implement some of the planned restrictions. As the program progressed, children began to arrive early and leave late, although it cut into their lunch hour. No matter how much we extended the period, the children said the session was too short.

Over the span of the program, it became apparent that some unanticipated changes had transpired for the instructors and their students - a bonding had occurred. The instructors dropped any stereotypic notions or anxieties they had about the students; they were dealing with individuals with whom they established a rapport and about whom they were concerned.

Early in the program, communication between children was almost nonexistent. Comments about each other's work were derogatory or teasing. As the program progressed, it was not uncommon to find children complimenting each other's accomplishments.


The children affirmed the success of the program through their artwork, and their request to return next term. The program was implemented under ideal conditions: a one-to-one student-instructor ratio; sufficient time a plan, teach, reflect and evaluate and an ample budget. But the value of the experience for the instructors went beyond these specifics. The instructors learned how to teach art to youngsters with emotional/behavioral disorders, and their anxieties and negative attitudes toward this challenging population of learners were dispelled.

The experience proved that submerging art for special education in a general art-methods course is not sufficient. A separate art class must be mandated as part of art-teacher training. The class must include opportunities for students to go beyond the realm of theory into the real world of teaching.
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:De Chiara, Edith
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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