Special Education

Arts Program Shows Promise in Special Ed. Classes

By Liana Loewus — May 20, 2014 10 min read
Special education teacher Elizabeth Rosenberry, right, uses singing in a lesson to encourage Jesus Torres-Tiamani, left, to make eye contact as classmate Ian Tokay looks on. The strategy comes from a federally backed arts initiative for students with severe cognitive and behavioral needs

Each of the visual arts, music, and dance activities Elizabeth Rosenberry engages in daily with her 2nd graders has a critical underlying goal: eye contact.

The veteran teacher opens class by crouching in front of a student and gently clutching his arms. “Zachary, look at me,” she sings, matching his wide-open eyes with her own. The two paraprofessionals assisting in the classroom at the public school, P4Q @ Skillman, encourage the other five students, also seated in the semicircle, to watch the interaction and sing along.

Ms. Rosenberry is one of 240 teachers in New York City’s District 75—a geographically dispersed collection of schools and programs serving students with the most severe cognitive and behavioral needs—to have received training in an initiative called Everyday Arts for Special Education, or EASE.

In 2010, the district received a $4.6 million federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant—an impressive amount by arts education standards—to offer professional development in EASE at 10 schools and to study the program’s effects along the way. The project was ranked fourth-highest among the 49 winners of i3 grants, and was chosen from 1,700 applicants.

With just a year left of that five-year funding from the U.S. Department of Education, a researcher who has been following the program says there’s convincing evidence EASE has succeeded in improving elementary students’ academic, socialization, and communication skills.

Even pending the final research results, the program is spreading: Teachers, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, and paraprofessionals around New York City’s 1.1 million-student school system have been requesting, and receiving, EASE training.

Special education teacher Elizabeth Rosenberry, center, asks students Jesus Torres-Tiamani, center, in blue, and Jeremy Andino-Colon, left, to make eye contact, encouraging social engagement, during class at P4Q @ Skillman, a public school in New York City. Ms. Rosenberry is one of the teachers in the district to receive training in the Everyday Arts for Special Education program.

In addition, the 640,000-student Los Angeles district is now piloting the program, though in a modified format, to help with an overhaul of how that district includes students with special needs in general education settings.

Kathy London, the arts instructional-support specialist for District 75, called the arts program “simple yet elegant"—and said it has garnered positive feedback from teachers in often very challenging settings.

“These are things anybody can learn,” she said. “And once they get comfortable, we’ve seen how it really changes teachers’ practice.”

Adaptive Activities

The Everyday Arts for Special Education program, developed and administered by the Urban Arts Partnership, a New York City-based nonprofit, brings in “teaching artists"—working musicians, theater actors, and visual artists with education experience—to mentor elementary special educators and arts teachers on how to weave the arts into their teaching.

EASE is not a curriculum in the traditional sense; rather, it’s a set of activities and techniques that educators have found helpful in both special education and arts settings. For the i3 research study, EASE teachers attend professional-development sessions and receive in-class mentoring from the teaching artists over three years, with less oversight as they progress through the program.

As Ms. London explained it, EASE differs from some other arts-integration programs in that the arts are not an add-on—they’re the organizing framework for each lesson.

“It’s not like there’s a social studies lesson and then there’s an arts component connected to it,” she said. “This is a vehicle for delivering content.”

In District 75—which serves about 23,000 students in grades K-12—a majority of students fall on the autism spectrum, although intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, emotional disabilities, and multiple (physical and cognitive) disabilities are also common. For that reason, the content of instruction varies greatly both between and within classrooms.

Singing with EASE: A Classroom Activity

Hear Elizabeth Rosenberry, a 4th grade music teacher at P4Q @ Skillman, lead an EASE activity in which students use colorful plastic tubes called “boomwhackers” to practice naming body parts, keeping rhythm, and listening to directions.

Some children may be working on early reading skills—letter recognition or phonemic awareness. Some may be reading fluently but with little comprehension. And others may be completely non-verbal.

“The program is definitely designed to be integrated into the academic curriculum, but with the caveat that for many of our kids, the academic curriculum means something different,” said Jennifer Raine, the EASE curriculum designer.

And nearly all of the students in District 75 are working on social-emotional or behavioral goals—maintaining self-regulation, following directions, taking turns, and communicating with peers.

Through EASE training, which takes place on several full days throughout the school year, teachers in grades K-5 learn more than two dozen arts activities that they can adapt to whatever content they are working on and differentiate for individual learners. The activities emphasize communication, social skills, and group work; above all, they’re meant to be fun.

“With the arts, there can be this denigrating attitude that that’s what kids do to have fun but it’s not serious learning,” said Ms. Raine. “We’re coming from the perspective that when you’re making lesson plans of any kind, fun is not an extraneous element; it’s an essential element.”

One of the most versatile activities that teachers using EASE employ is called “kinesthetic matching.” In that activity, a student holds a card with a visual cue—a picture, a letter, or a word. He or she then hops, slides, or dances to another person holding a corresponding card. For instance, a picture of a dime might go with the word “dime.” While the student chooses, the rest of the class joins in and says “Boooooop!” in a drawn-out, sing-songy manner, finishing when the student has found and touched the match.

The movement and choral response are meant to keep the whole class engaged in the content being presented. The activity can help teach any number of skills: letter sounds, colors, vocabulary, weather, shapes, even social studies facts.

'Innovation' Grants Fuel Arts Education

The Everyday Arts for Special Education initiative in New York City is just one of three arts-education plans to win a federal grant in 2010 under the Investing in Innovation, or i3, competition by the U.S. Department of Education. Another New York City program was selected, as well as a project in Beaverton, Ore.

The Beaverton School District Arts for Learning Lessons Project
$4 million over five years.

This project, in the 13,000-student Beaverton, Ore., school district, aims to use the arts to improve literacy achievement for students in grades 3-5.

Teachers learn to integrate drama, music, dance, and other arts into reading and writing lessons, with mentoring from trained teaching artists. The grant includes a research component as well, conducted by WestEd.

Arts Achieve: Impacting Student Success in the Arts
$4.4 million over five years.

Studio in a School, an arts education nonprofit in New York City, partnered with other arts groups and the city school system to create benchmark assessments in visual arts, music, dance, and theater for grades 5, 8, and high school.

The formative and summative assessments are aligned to academic standards and will eventually be available online for all teachers. Also, teachers receive professional development and participate in learning communities.

SOURCES: Beaverton School District; Studio in a School

“The thing about kinesthetic matching is you’re doing stuff you have to do already as a teacher, and you’re making it fun,” Ms. Raine said. “The big unspoken secret of our work is a ‘boop’ can go a long way. It seems ridiculous, but my question is, how many more times is a kid going to be motivated to do what he has to do if he gets to make that sound?”

Channeling Energy

Some of the other activities are more focused on creating art projects: Students make shapes and jewelry out of tin foil, paint coffee filters, and take photographs, for example.

Others are more sensory-focused: Students pass around koosh balls when answering questions and bang colorful plastic tubes known as “boomwhackers” on the table when the leader points to their color. All the while, students practice making eye contact with each other, listening to directions, making choices, and communicating their needs and preferences.

“Definitely, the EASE philosophy is about channeling students’ natural energy and tendencies and using them to develop skills you want them to work on,” said Ms. Rosenberry, who has completed the required three years of the program and is now helping train other teachers.

“A lot of times, students with autism get taught in a one-to-one setting. [With EASE] we do a lot of group work, which is really challenging for them.”

Through the program training, teachers are also urged to “wait and see what happens"—that is, give children a chance to express themselves, verbally or otherwise.

“It allows you time and space to notice things happening in your classroom, to tune in to each student and see what they’re doing,” Ms. Rosenberry said. “It’s really easy, with students with these types of special needs, to say they don’t have an opinion. But if you slow down, you can see Ian is looking at the pink boomwhacker,” and he may want to use it.

Research ‘Hard to Come By’

According to Philip Courtney, the chief executive officer of the Urban Arts Partnership, the research being conducted on EASE, as written into the federal i3 grant, “is the largest research project being done in the country in how arts intersect with special education.”

Kristen Engebretsen, the arts education program manager at Americans for the Arts, a national arts-advocacy group, who has been tracking the EASE work along with the two other arts programs that received i3 grants, agrees.

Special education teacher Stephen Reese, right, holds up the word “yellow,” inviting student Jeremy Betancourt, left, to say it, during an exercise called “kinesthetic matching” at the school.

“Quality research for arts education with special-needs students is really hard to come by. It’s such a small niche,” she said.

Rob Horowitz, the associate director of the Center for Arts Education Research at Teachers College, Columbia University, who heads the EASE research project, is conducting two impact studies—one looking at student scores on the state’s alternative assessment for students with severe disabilities and another on measures of social-emotional learning. In addition, he’s conducting what he calls an “extensive qualitative study” in which teachers rate and describe student progress weekly.

“It’s a very large set of data,” Mr. Horowitz said. “There were over 14,000 submissions last year.” He and a half-dozen other researchers are conducting classroom observations as well.

As of now, the results have been encouraging, he said.

“The evidence is strong so far that, in fact, these activities are helping kids communicate and develop socialization skills in new ways,” said Mr. Horowitz. The 2012-13 results found that between 77 percent and 84 percent of students participating regularly in EASE activities have made progress in each of the following areas: communication, socialization, compliance with directions, time spent on task, and engagement in school activities.

While the academic-testing results won’t come in until next year, Mr. Horowitz said the program has also shown “positive effects” on students’ goals for their individualized education programs.

The Urban Arts Partnership also has begun piloting the EASE program in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2013, the LAUSD began moving hundreds of students with special needs from separate schools to neighborhood schools to comply with federal and state regulations and a 1996 court decree to reduce the number of stand-alone centers. The district looked to the arts partnership for help in training its art teachers to work with students who have severe needs.

The New York City group is now in its second year of providing professional development in the Los Angeles district. Twelve teachers were involved the first year; now approximately 45 teachers are receiving training.

Ms. London of District 75 says more teachers in the New York City district have been asking for training as well. About 100 or so teachers this school year attended professional-development sessions for EASE, though without the follow-up, in-class coaching that teachers involved in the research study received.

Further, Mr. Courtney said the Urban Arts Partnership is aiming to bring the program to prekindergarten classrooms, too. The timing could be opportune: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced plans to bring universal pre-K to the city, and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has said she wants to see improvements in both arts education and special education.

In addition, next year, when the federal grant funding dries up, the program will continue to expand its reach by making the lesson plans available online for free.

In-Class Performance

For now, though, teachers in District 75 are most concerned about what’s working in their own classrooms. Shenika Aspinall, who teaches 4th graders with autism at Public School 176X and just completed her first year of EASE training, said she was skeptical of the program at first.

“I wasn’t too sure how well my students would follow directions, and felt they might be overstimulated,” she said.

But she’s seen an increase in spontaneous language and patience in her classroom, and is now a big EASE proponent.

“I was very surprised to see they did exhibit self-control and how calming the EASE activities were,” Ms. Aspinall said of her students.

The music and singing, in particular, she said, have helped reduce behavioral problems. In fact, she now often puts on smooth jazz in the background to help students settle down.

Ms. Aspinall said the program has also rejuvenated her as a teacher.

“With common-core [standards] and assessments, as a teacher, you feel like your creativity has been taken away,” she said. “What I like about EASE is that it’s brought the fun back.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2014 edition of Education Week as Arts Program Shows Promise in Special Ed. Classes


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