The Importance of Special Needs Preservice Preparations and Experiences in Art Education

by Nancy Suarez-Gonzalez, Art Education

Abstract: This paper explores the importance of special needs preservice preparations and experiences in Art Education and how they correlate with an art educator’s mindset, confidence, and efficiency in teaching students with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND). This study highlights that for all students to have an equal opportunity to acquire everyday life skills in an art classroom—such as critical thinking, collaboration, and communication—modifications need to be made to art educators’ preservice preparations. In current Art Education, an art educator’s insufficient knowledge and experience with students with SEND is an ongoing issue that is often overlooked and under-researched. Supporting evidence, facts, and quotes were gathered from various studies that provide varied perspectives regarding the fact that art educators lack training and/or knowledge regarding learning disabilities and special needs students. This educational error is in no part the educator’s fault but the systems. All issues possess a root cause in this case, higher education systems are failing to prepare art educators on the topic of special needs studies. This problem causes educators to feel less comfortable and confident which then leads to misconceptions and loss of motivation when teaching and integrating individuals with SEND in their classroom.

art education, special education, learning disabilities, preservice experiences, higher education

An interest of mine as a future art educator is to allow all of my students to develop their self-worth and confidence by teaching them the importance of creative expression. My vision is to provide an inclusive environment and a flexible curriculum to nurture all forms of learning to best meet all students’ basic needs. However, I question my ability and the possibility of this outcome due to the limited preparation art teachers gain concerning special education and that of various learning disabilities. Art Education is a field where individuals can learn and develop skills that are vital inside and outside the classroom. Therefore, it is of great importance for art teachers to be sufficiently prepared that all students have the same potential to achieve these lifelong skills.

This educational issue interested me after researching inclusive and empathetic approaches that can be taken in an art classroom. During my exploration of this previous research, I noticed an abundance of information related to learning disabilities and students with special needs. With further exploration, I learned that “art teachers frequently report feeling uncomfortable and frustrated when students with special needs are integrated into their art classrooms” (Bain & Hasio, 2011, p. 34). I wondered why this was the case since, in my understanding, educators should be willing to educate everyone—not handpick those whom they want to teach.

However, I noticed the problem was not the teachers themselves but the educational system that
failed to prepare them for such situations. Throughout my inquiry, I will examine educators with
enough training and knowledge regarding learning disabilities and special needs students can
change their attitude and confidence toward having these students in their classrooms.

Undoubtedly, the integration of art into a student’s academic studies is vital. As Al Yahyai et al. (2021) reflect, “Visual arts are activities that contribute to educating learners with and without special needs. It is considered a source of satisfaction, development of feeling of achievement, happiness, and a means of activating thinking and learning” (p. 191). I would like to believe that all educators agree with this statement. However, art educators particularly struggle to gain sufficient experience with students who have special needs, an issue often overlooked and under-researched. According to Thompson et al. (2023), “specific research about school art teachers’ practice concerning students with SEND, is an under-researched area” (p 84). This causes me to question how long the problem has been known while little has been done to solve or minimize it. A main factor that diminishes an art educator’s ability to educate kids with SEND is their insufficient experience and/or knowledge of the matter. This then leads them to feel uncomfortable when students with SEND are integrated into their classrooms, limiting the student’s opportunity to experience the lifelong skills attained in an art classroom. The lack of knowledge regarding students with special needs and/or disabilities affects not only art educators but all educators. It leads them to develop a fixed attitude towards these groups of individuals. For example, Thompson et al. (2023) reference the work of Mazenod et al. (2019) who state, “Some literature has shown that teachers judge students with SEND as lower achievers than those without SEND, indicating they underestimate their academic ability” (p. 86). This judgment is intolerable because it can influence an educator’s motivation behind teaching someone due to their misconceptions. From past personal experience as a student at a public high school, many individuals, teachers, and students spread false information about those with special needs and disabilities. However, their lack of knowledge is at fault.

I believe if people were properly educated about how diverse students with special needs and disabilities are they would understand that not all individuals in this group are the same; as a matter of fact, they are all unique in their own ways like every other person in this world.

Ultimately, to be able to provide an inclusive environment with a flexible curriculum that nurtures all forms of learning, you must possess a basic knowledge of how to educate all of your students. Yet, this is hard to come by since “most teacher education programs do not offer sufficient coursework or field experiences in training pre-service art teachers to teach students with disabilities” (Begeske et al., 2023, p. 48). As a result of this, many teachers feel unprepared to teach those with SEND and are fixated on creating a curriculum for those with neurotypical brains. Research surveys taken by art teachers in 1967 supported the fact that art educators lack the skill to efficiently and comfortably teach students with SEND (Begeske et al., 2023). With this information provided, there is a clear correlation that connects a lack of knowledge to the level of confidence when teaching diverse learners. Therefore, it is clear that “authentic experiences in local classrooms help preservice students feel empowered toward working with children with special needs” (Bain & Hasio, 2011, p. 39).

To further assess what art education has to offer to all students reflection is useful; you ever thought about the valuable skills you achieved from your childhood art class? These skills can be as simple as understanding a minimalist picture book or strengthening your creativity. For example, according to Montero (2023), “Past research has suggested incorporating design thinking in education helps students develop what are known as the Four C’s: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking” (p. 155). A similarity between all these skills is that they are basic everyday necessities. This highlights the importance of why art education is critical in school systems and vital for all students’ personal development.

While growing up, the kids with special needs and/or disabilities were called “the special kids.” I noticed that they were segregated into different classrooms from my peers and me, which I never understood. As of now, I still have little knowledge of individuals with special needs and disabilities, but I am eager to learn. A proposed solution I have for future educators like me to navigate potentially segregated classrooms is the collaboration of special educators with art educators. I believe this collaboration will assist both types of educators because they lack the knowledge of each other’s expertise. Supported by Collier and Wix (2017), “Several special education teachers voiced their fear of succeeding in art, suggesting it was a scary and unfamiliar experience, while art teacher admitted their lack of education and experience regarding how to teach art to students with special needs” (p. 40). A collaboration will allow educators to work together to find a well-structured curriculum that provides diverse students the ability to learn confidently like every other student. In turn, each teacher will gain confidence in an unfamiliar content area: “Special education teachers will be exposed to opportunities to make art in a safe environment, and art education teachers will be faced with opportunities to create inclusive classroom environments” (Collier & Wix, 2017, p. 40).

Given the vast impact art education has on all students’ personal development—inside and outside a classroom—it should become a priority to provide everyone, with or without special needs and/or disabilities, an equal opportunity to experience such a life-changing class. Simple tasks such as exercising one’s creativity, critical thinking, and honing motor abilities through art classes play a huge part in personal and academic performance. Therefore, a significant step to ensure this possibility is to confront the issue of insufficient preparation and knowledge. A solution to this might look like implementing additional disability studies within an educational preparation curriculum in higher education (Al-Yahyai et al., 2021) or even garnering further encouragement from K-12 schools regarding collaboration between special needs teachers and art teachers in classrooms.


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Acknowledgements: To my former Cedar Shoals high school art teacher Ms. D’Huyvetter, my Art Education instructor Devin Jo, and my parents, Miguel Suarez and Gloria Gonzalez. Thank you for supporting and inspiring me to become better!

Citation Style: APA