Art Therapy builds motor and cognitive skills

tour special needs family

Art Therapy for Special Needs Children. Art is important to the development of all children, but it is particularly valuable to children with disabilities. When creating art, the child is building a wide variety of skills – both motor and cognitive. The various sensory experiences involved in art production are positive and pleasurable sensations. Additionally, the creative process provides opportunities for expressing ideas and emotions, which can sometimes be difficult for the child with disabilities.

Making Art Special – A Curriculum for Special Education Art, by Helen Goren Shafton, is a guide to teaching art to children with disabilities in a classroom or other setting. It includes over 50 full color, illustrated lessons with step-by-step instructions, written for teachers and parents. The book also has helpful information for creating your own lessons.

Art is important to the development of all children, but it is particularly valuable to children with disabilities for a number of reasons. When creating art, the child is building a wide variety of skills – both motor and cognitive. The various sensory experiences involved in art production are positive and pleasurable sensations. Additionally, the creative process provides opportunities for expressing ideas and emotions, which can sometimes be difficult to do through speech or written word for the child with disabilities. And, most importantly, the confidence and overall well being of the child is enhanced through the successful manipulation of art materials.

The author, Helen Goren Shafton has been working with students with a variety of cognitive and motor disabilities in her art room for more than 12 years. She is a Rauschenberg Foundation/Lab School of Washington DC Power of Art award recipient for 2010. She has published articles in School Arts Magazine and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Art Education from the University of Wisconsin and a Master’s degree in Curriculum & Instruction from North Central College in Illinois. She lives in a suburb of Chicago with her husband.

Making Art Special: A Curriculum for Special Education Art is available through Amazon and at Makingartspecial. For more good ideas and resources, visit

Through art therapy, children receive treatment that is based on their existing strengths, weaknesses, intrests, and concerns. It can help children of all ages and races.

Art therapy for children can provide children with an easier way to express themselves since children are more naturally artistic and creative. A young child is likely to be more comfortable initially expressing him/herself with some crayons and markers, for example, than he/she is going to be at expressing emotions and feelings through words.

For a child with special needs, expressive art can foster relaxation, focus and a sense of accomplishment while working on a creative project. The arts are an increasingly popular way for children with special needs to overcome difficulties and take pride in a new skill.

It's important to have patience when helping special needs students with art projects. Reacting with impatience may cause the special needs child undue anxiety and make the task far less pleasurable. Make the point of the art activity the actual process rather than the finished result. Letting the child know that his/her artwork is special and unique throughout the process can help them become more confident.

Engaging in art time is no time for overly strict rules. Children often grow used to being instructed not to make a mess. At art time, these rules should be relaxed and they should be free of worrying about spilling a drop of glue or splattering some paint. However, take precautions and cover clothing and surfaces, but strive to make the experience fun and worry about any mess later.

Allow plenty of time for the art project. Rushing will only cause the students anxiety. They may experience frustration when they are not able to perform fast enough, making them reluctant to participate again. They may feel disappointed if they are unable to finish the projects they've put loving effort into doing.

Always compliment the special needs student on their artwork. Generally, students are eager to please their teachers, and a few kind words can boost their self-esteem and give them an overall sense of accomplishment that may spread to other subjects.

Start with simple projects, like handprint painting, simple crafts and finger-painting. Use clay and offer the children different shapes and textured materials they can glue onto paper or cardboard. Introduce more complex projects when you see that the children are ready for them. Make art expression a time for fun learning that will inspire and provide creative outlets for special needs children.

Here are some simple steps to help you adapt art projects for children with special needs:

Modify art supplies to accomodate the child's capabilities
Engage children in group activities
Accommodate each individual
Allow time to finish an activity

Using art projects to inspire their artistic expression provides a place for them to interpret their emotions and it can be a therapeutic process.

In addition to the traditional art supplies, also incorporate tactile materials. Use items such as clay, beads, yarn and dough. These items are very therapeutic for children with special needs and they enhance their hand-eye coordination and motor skills.

To aid you in the planning of activities, use the following tips:

Provide examples of what you want them to do
List steps to show how the project should be completed
Discuss how to appreciate their work no matter how it turns out.

There are many satisfying and enjoyable tasks you can share in the art program with special needs learners. Some require a significant amount of preparation, but others can be done simply and easily.

As with many situations, there are some tips to make the art experience easier.

Preparation is the key to a good art activity. Have your materials ready before class, and check the little things like having new stocks of paint ready to go when the old bottle runs out, and having containers that can be opened easily.

For each child, you should have at least one overall goal to guide your planning and approach:

Break your goal up into smaller objectives which are specific and measurable.

Have a good understanding of the child, their skills and their learning needs. Art is not an environment where you want to suddenly find out that someone is tactile defensive or has an anger management issue.

Spend time outdoors as well as within the art room or classroom itself. Explore the feel and appearance of natural items, and incorporate them into the art experience.

Work with families and the community to build your stocks of boxes, tubes, cylinders, tubs, as well as natural items such as leaves and nuts from trees. This helps children learn the value of using and reusing, and how it helps protect the environment.

Avoid injuries. A chair on caster wheels with an easy height adjustment is a great tool for getting yourself around the room easily and being at the right height. Avoid leaning over a child from behind - go around in front instead, and sit in a comfortable position to avoid back pain.

Understand the contents of every paint bottle, varnish, lump of clay and pot of glaze.

Encourage students to experiment with color, texture and visual images. Don’t always have an end product in mind. Sometimes just set an objective, then see how students set about experimenting and exploring on their way to achieving it.

Children with severe motor challenges may need physical help to create artwork. When helping a child in the art center be sure to let her take the lead. Give only the help necessary. Encourage children to try to do it themselves first. Ask a child what she wants to do, what materials she wants to use and what kind of help she needs. Check in as you help to make sure that you are helping her create what she wants.

Scribbling is the best way for a child to practice fine motor and pre-literacy skills, as well as art making.

Creating a magazine art will decrease the anxiety and intimidation they may feel when faced with a blank sheet of paper. Magazine art is essentially a piece of paper that you add magazine cut outs to - start by cutting and pasting the child's choice of magazine to the paper. When completed, have the child explain why they chose the cut outs for their artwork.

Using a tray, cooking sheet or top of a gift box can create a boundary and automatically make it easier for children to control materials inside the space. Lining paper on a tray, sheet or box will keep your child working inside the boundaries of the object and help them become more aware of the paper limits.

To encourage children to look at their work, use a large piece of foil or sand paper as the art surface. Children can paint, draw with crayons, or collage on these surfaces for a little extra sensory input when making art. More options include using a stand-up table mirror, table easel, or an actual window in your home. Window crayons, window chalk, or window markers can be used on these surfaces and your child will love drawing on their own reflection or on outside scenery.

To help children get used to touching sticky stuff, use contact paper or plastic wrap. These are great transition materials and your child can try to place pieces of tissue paper or magazine pictures onto these different textures. Getting their fingers to occasionally tap down on these paper substitutes will help ease them into the feel and texture of sticky substances. Helping them peel foam stickers to decorate an art piece can also expose them to "the sticky" feeling.

Depending on attention span, you may want to alternate the art activity with a sensory activity such as sand tray play. Some children can't sit, so increase their attention span through a non-conventional mode of art making. In those cases, you can also tape a large piece of paper underneath a table while the child lies on a mat or foam wedge as they work on the art.

Art Therapy as a profession
Art Therapy is a term that has been used to describe widely varying practices in education, rehabilitation, and psychotherapy. Art Therapy is the therapeutic use of art making to promote healing and growth in a professional relationship. Art Therapists are Masters-level professionals who have extensive knowledge of, and are able to practice, counseling theories and techniques with people of all ages, in a variety of settings including schools.

The responsibility of an Art Therapist is to help students express and contain their internal conflicts, while facilitating their ability to implement change. School Art Therapists collaborate with the teaching and counseling staff as well as parents, to establish treatment goals and objectives that are appropriate within a school system. They offer both individual and group counseling. Art Therapy in schools is generally used for special education students who have difficulty in the setting as a result of learning disabilities, behavior disorders, emotional disturbances, or physical handicaps which impair gross and fine motor control. An initial AT assessment is a primary part of this process, in which a student's strengths and weaknesses are explored.

Typically, an Art Therapy assessment involves the therapist's giving the client a series of five or six art tasks, using a variety of media. These tasks relate to the student's perception of self, his or her family, and school, or other aspects of their environment. These drawings and the student's behavior while approaching this task are then evaluated along with developmental, family, and academic history. It is important to note that children's progress in drawing differs significantly across the cultural spectrum. A person who uses art as an assessment tool needs to be familiar with the art children are exposed to and the culture they are from, before making an evaluation.

Art therapy can help special needs children in a variety of circumstances and conditions, including but not limited to the following:

Mental health problems in children
Child grief.
Bereaved children and/or a child suffering from bereavement
Children with learning disabilities
Children with emotional problems
Children with their cognitive abilities
Help a child or children with abuse, helping them communicate about physical or sexual abuse
Help a child coping with cancer

Those are just a few aspects in which art therapy can help children. Art therapy can also aid a child in achieving better self-awareness, relief from stress or anxiety, learning disorders, autism, and other traumatic experiences.

Through art therapy, children receive treatment that is based on their existing strengths, weaknesses, intrests, and concerns. It can help children of all ages and races.

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