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Supporting Students With Disabilities by Preparing Arts Teachers

Date: 18 June 2018

While the most recent federal data on inclusion show most students with disabilities spend the majority of their time in general education settings, the same data show that students with significant learning needs — those with autism, intellectual disability or multiple disabilities — are included substantially less. Historical evidence supports the claim that for many students, the arts classroom is the first site for instruction alongside typically developing peers.

Inclusion of the arts in state plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act elevates the critical role that arts teachers play in a well-rounded education for students with disabilities, yet across all art forms, research shows that the vast majority of arts educators are not adequately prepared for this important work. Most arts education programs offer only one course related to special education, and it typically doesn’t align with arts pedagogy. About a quarter of practicing arts teachers receive university coursework on teaching students with disabilities in the arts, and nearly two-thirds of in-service arts educators feel they are unprepared to meet the needs of their students with disabilities — disappointing statistics made more disheartening by their stagnant levels over the last three decades.

Providing better educational opportunities for our students with disabilities means supporting the professional development of in-service arts teachers, while also addressing this gap at the pre-service level.

In-service teachers can be trained in evidence-based special education practices, like differentiated instruction and Universal Design for Learning, in sessions led by master teachers who can incorporate these strategies in arts instruction. Arts teachers can also benefit from a working vocabulary in disability and large-scale interventions, like Multi-Tiered System of Supports so they can more effectively collaborate with their colleagues. The Office of VSA and Accessibility’s Special Education Team at the Kennedy Center leads the field in providing professional development of this nature — including the annual VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference, a webinar series and technical assistance offered in-person and online.

University coursework in evidence-based approaches for working with exceptional learners in arts contexts can be a mandatory part of pre-service arts educator training. Two first-of-their-kind university programs — the Berklee College of Music and Moore College of Art and Design — equip graduates with these skills; and in summer 2018, the directors of these programs will co-facilitate a day-long convening, hosted by the Kennedy Center, that invites faculty from leading arts education programs to imagine the future of pre-service teacher training in the arts and special education. This convening aims to put forth a white paper of recommendations on how higher education institutions can play a critical role in educational equity for students with disabilities in the arts.

Administrators at state, district and school levels can drive progress in these efforts by allocating funds to provide arts teachers with professional development in special education strategies, making resources — like those offered through the Kennedy Center — readily available and making time for arts and special educators to collaborate. Additionally, by making clear the educator competencies that bring value to an inclusive school community, administrators and policymakers can ensure that university programs provide pre-service arts educators with the necessary training to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

This guest post comes from Jenna Gabriel, manager of special education at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The annual VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference will take place Aug. 5-8 in Atlanta. To view more information about the conference and to register, please click here. You can learn more about the Office of VSA & Accessibility on Facebook at: VSAInternational, Twitter @VSAInt, or Instagram @vsainternational.

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