Tips for Assisting Special Needs Kids in Art Class

Posted March 21, 2016 @ 4:33pm | by Danelle

Sometimes determining how much help to offer a student with special needs can be confusing and challenging.   There are ways to do this that respect and value abilities and also give opportunities for students to learn new skills.  Learning how to give assistance is a balance of respect, creativity, and persistence.

Assisting a student with special needs may be as simple as having your student do half the steps.  This allows them to be self directed and lets them participate on an age appropriate level and calls little attention to any delays or challenges they may have. 

Collaboration is a way of offering more support but still offering a level of independence and decision making.  You do half of the step and the student finishes it.  Or you do one step and the student does the next step.  This works for kids who may need a little more support but still gives them opportunities to make decisions and choices.

Hand over Hand Assistance

  • Some students may have more significant disabilities.  How much assistance is too much assistance? For these students’ options may be hand over hand assistance or not participating at all. There are different opinions on acceptable levels of hand over hand assistance to provide an individual with disabilities. Ultimately everyone has to come up with their own philosophy.  My experience has been that even students with severe disabilities desire to participate, get their hands in the materials and participate in making their mark on the world and should get to participate on some level.  Sometimes providing students with a little extra stabilization can enable them to execute and learn new skills.  Some argue that this does not mean that their art work is “ pure.”  I feel that there are ways to provide hand over hand assistance that enable the artist as much independence as possible.  At the end of the day if it comes down to a student missing having an art experience or just being left to be an observer as someone else does the project I am going to get their hands moving and in the art materials on even the most basic levels.  Sometimes this does require hand over hand assistance.   

Things to remember when providing hand over hand assistance

  • Sometimes a student may just need someone to do some hand over hand help to give them a feel for how to hold an art tool through muscle memory.  They may never have had the opportunity to use tools and experiment with them. Always respect the students wishes if they do not want this type of assistance.  Many times students can still initiate where to move art tools etc…. they may just need someone to stabilize their hands. 
  • Add concrete help but still leave room for self direction.  The goal is to help the student feel successful with as much independent participation in the project as possible.  Follow even the most gentle movement of muscles the student may exhibit.  Let them guide you as much as possible. 
  • Sometimes people will try to take over and do things their way.  If you are not helping the student and there is someone else helping them explain to the helper that they are there to support not control the project.  At times this can be a frustrating experience.  Some people will have better instincts for knowing these boundaries but there may be times when you can’t control the” helper” and they may dominate the project too much.  Do your best.  Success for some students is just getting the opportunity to participate and have their hands in the art materials. 
  • Don’t be intimidated by severe disabilities.  Sometimes people can be fearful to even touch kids with more severe disabilities.  Many times they are tougher than you think.  Whenever possible find out information from caretakers who may know the student  and their challenges.  You can gently offer some options to the student to see how far they can stretch their arms or move their fingers.  Try different things. See if they can drop pieces of paper or how far they can stretch their arms.  The student will appreciate you trying and the fact that you are taking the time to try and make some participation options work for them.  Most of these students have only gotten to watch as an observer as someone completes their project for them because people were too scared to experiment with them or decided they could not do it.  Many of the students I have worked with are just thrilled to get to drop pieces of paper to create a collage because they never have had the chance and no one know how to help them.




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