Benefits Of Arts Integration For Students With Disabilities Education Essay

According to Corbett, Wilson, & Morse (2002, p. 17), “arts integration enables students to be active, to experience things directly, and to express themselves in ways best suited to the students.” Mason & Steedly (2006b) state the goal of arts integration is so students can have a direct experience with direct involvement in decision making about learning and with direct engagement in motivating lessons. “Arts integration is an approach to teaching in which student construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both” (The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2008). The purpose of this study is to investigate the ways that arts integration contributes to academic achievement and personal development of middle school students with disabilities. In this study, arts integration includes the use of visual arts, drama, music, movement and dance, poetry, and storytelling into the language arts curriculum. This chapter will review several bodies of research to include characteristics of students with disabilities, historical and theoretical basis for arts education, benefits of arts education for students with disabilities, supportive elements of arts integration, arts integration and cognitive processes, transfer theory, and brain research.

Rationale for the Study

Much research has been completed to advance the knowledge of specific difficulties children with disabilities face and interventions to address these difficulties. Over 30 years ago, Samuel Kirk and his colleagues established the category of specific learning disabilities in response to pressure from parents advocating for their children (Vaughn, Gersten, & Chard, 2000). Students with learning disabilities have difficulty approaching academic tasks due to their lack of ability to use learning and cognitive strategies resulting in low self-efficacy for academics with many students avoiding tasks similar to those they previously failed. (Margolis & McCabe, 2003, Vaugh et al., 2000). Research-based interventions have been used to develop and strengthen metacognitive and cognitive areas of difficulty that students with disabilities present such as attention problems, frustration, disorganization, poor auditory and visual perception, linking previous knowledge with new knowledge, generalization of learning strategies, poor study skills, memory deficits and inadequate prior knowledge (Scruggs and Mastropieri, 2000; Johnson, E., Humphrey, M., Mellard, D., Woods, K., & Swanson, H., 2010). The constructivist model of instruction focuses upon an inquiry models which creates concrete experiences with relative hands-on activities for constructing content knowledge that potentially enhance learning of students with disabilities (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2000). In contrast to the constructivist approaches, content driven or textbook based approaches have gained momentum during the current era of standards-based learning and high stakes testing. The content driven approach places substantial demands on semantic memory, vocabulary learning, and independent learning of abstract content from textbooks which is problematic for students with disabilities (Scruggs et al., 2000).

The benefits of arts education is based upon theoretical assumptions of what the arts teach. Champions of Change researchers found that students can attain higher levels of achievement through engagement with the arts stating that for students with disabilities, learning through the arts levels the playing field (Catterall, 2000). Research shows that significant differences in achievement and in important attitudes and behaviors of secondary students involved in the arts as opposed to those with little or no arts engagement. According to Catterall, as a learner develops cognition, he develops abilities and expertise that support academic and social learning. Affective development increases a learner’s interest in learning and feeling of self worth which, in turn, increase his willingness to learn and apply new skills (Darby & Catterall, 1994). Thus, affective and cognitive effects of arts-based teaching and learning are closely related.

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The next section presents research related to students with disabilities to include cognitive processes and learning characteristics and interventions related to each.

Learning Disabilities Characteristics

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 defines specific learning disabilities as:

…a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.

Special education has long been an empirically based field of study since its education policy and practice have been supported by scientific studies since IDEA included a federal financing of special education research. Although deficits in academic areas represent the most central feature of students with specific learning disabilities, social and emotional concerns have been reported with literature for over 30 years that suggest that students with learning disabilities are more likely to experience psychosocial issues than their regular peers (Bender & Wall, 1994; Elksnin & Elksnin, 2004; Bryan, Burstein, & Ergul, 2004). Social problems are reported “across ages (preschool-elementary-junior-senior high schools-colleges-adulthood), race and ethnicity (some inconsistencies), settings (rural-urban), raters (parents, teachers, peers, and self-assessments), methods and measures (surveys, observations, and laboratory studies, countries (United States, Canada, Israel, Australia, and South Africa) and time (30+ years)” (Bryan et al., 2004).

Benefits of Arts Integration for Students with Disabilities

In Critical Links studies of large-scale arts infusion in school curricula show generally higher levels of achievement motivation and engagement in arts-rich school settings (Catterall, 2002). Critical Links studies also point to an array of cognitive and affective benefits of engagement in the arts especially for special populations (Catterall, 2002). A task force chaired by the American Educational Research Association noted that the arts may contribute to students with special needs as the arts increase their involvement and as a result, gain self confidence through the arts, their classmates, and enhance teacher perception of these students (Deasey, 2004). Also noted, participation in arts education may boost academic achievement for these students (Deasey, 2004; Catterall & Waldorf, 2000).

The Arts and Social Development

Catterall, Harland, and the Teachers College of Columbia University found that drama experience develop a sense of empathy for others, creativity, expressive skills, and self-confidence (Horowitz & Webb-Dempsey, 2002). Also emerging from the Teachers College, the works of Heath and Baum showed self regulatory behavior of students who engaged in the arts as positive risk-taking, “paying attention,” “self-initiating” behaviors, “persevering,” “focused perception,” “task persistence,” and “ownership of learning” (Horowitz & Webb-Dempsy, 2002, p. 98). Rey de la Cruz’s (1995) study on the effects of creative drama on the social development of children with learning disabilities found that children increased their social skills in four clusters of social behaviors to include courtesy to others, self-control, focus (ignoring distractions), and social compliance (following written directions). This is the first reported sizable experimental test of creative drama on the academic and social development of children with learning disabilities providing hard quantitative evidence of the impact on linguistic and social skills (Deasy, 2002).

The Arts and Cognitive Development

The term, cognitive processes, is defined through research as metacognition, expression, construction and connection of content knowledge and meaning, memory, learning, and intellectual processing (Deasy, 2002). Research summarized in Critical Links identifies a range of cognitive capacities engaged in and nurtured by learning in the arts, including focused perception, elaboration, problem solving, and elements of creative thinking including fluency, originality, and abstractness of thought (Deasy, 2002).

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Use of Rubrics for Measuring the Effects of Arts Integration

VSA arts, the International Organization on Arts and Disability, is a non profit organization founded by Jean Kennedy Smith in 1974, whose goal is to create a society where all people with disabilities can learn through, participate in, and enjoy the arts. Researchers, Mason and Steedly (2006b), from VSA, articulated that almost no information is available which assists teachers in evaluating the effects of arts integration on social, cognitive, academic, or artistic skills of students with disabilities. Existing research has limited investigations about the value of the arts for students with disabilities in an empirical sense. Mason et al. (2006b) examined the use of rubrics to evaluate student performance as well as several projects that integrate art and learning. The values of rubrics are its flexibility as an authentic assessment measure as rubrics can be adapted to many situations to evaluate the quality of student work. Through their research, Mason et al. (2006b) created a model rubric from both Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) and the outcomes-based model for special education developed by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO; Ysseldyke, Thurlow, & Erickson, 1994). From the NCEO materials, the authors built their models on the categories most relevant to the arts: communication, problem-solving, academic and functional literacy, and cultural domains. From this model, teachers built their own rubrics.

The first phase involved completing the prototype, sharing it with teachers, and receiving feedback on the rubrics. Based on recommendations, revisions were completed and phase two began. Seven other teachers implemented the rubrics. Participants represented a stratified sample of urban, suburban, and rural areas in various regions of the country with students of varied disabilities and grade levels representing a range of ethnic, cultural, racial, and socioeconomic groups. The researchers used a community of practice (CoP) methodology so that they could provide an arena where participants could share their personal and professional knowledge in order to give the results greater meaning and relevance for teachers. The VSA CoP used technology which allowed teachers to communicate and create knowledge together, allowing the possibility of future replication with larger groups of participants. Mason et al. (2006b) indicated a further need for research in the development of art-focused, inclusive rubrics with an in-depth analysis as well as further attention needed for professional development.

A follow-up study from the findings of the previous article, Mason and Steedly (2006a) discussed rubrics used to measure student learning and artistic skills created by seven teachers as a part of an Arts Integration Community of Practice. Examples from five sites, across a variety of academic content areas and age levels, and with students of varying disabilities, are included in this article. Mason et. al (2006a) evidenced that teachers indicated that rubrics were not only helpful in evaluating learning but structuring the art activity as well. This article presented three examples of arts integration lessons. Arts integration not only increased student motivation, but improved student understanding of academic material as well as understanding contextual variables related to the content. Results suggested that rubrics appear to be a useful tool for measuring the impact of arts integration; facilitating teacher planning, supporting collaboration between artists and educators, and helping students conduct self-assessments. Participants demonstrated several ways to design and use the rubrics.

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From these studies, a common thread tends to be that the use of arts integration in the curriculum creates meaning and meaningful relationships with students who are disabled and non-disabled. Mason et al. (2006a, 2006b) have begun to incorporated rubrics in measuring progress of students with disabilities taught through the arts. The use of rubrics assists in the evaluation of learning plus the structuring of activities. Art specialist, regular educators, and special educators collaborated to refine rubrics. Rubrics also act as a means to help students self access their progress. Various schools in locations across the nations used the rubrics with success creating additional rubric designs.

Supportive Elements of Arts Integration

A study focused on an urban, K-5 art magnet school in southeastern U.S. explored ways in which the art, in the form of music, drama, art and movement, were integrated with classroom curriculum at a public arts-magnet school (Lynch, 2007). The school employs full-time art, music physical education and movement and drama teachers who teach their own disciplines, as well as design and teach arts integration lessons. The use of movement gave students a sense of freedom and responsibility for their own learning that helped sustain their attention and encouraged perseverance with the task (Lynch, 2007). Understanding of art concepts led students in becoming attentive to detail, in being more deliberate in choices, and in being more thoughtful in what they considered essential (Lynch, 2007).

Lynch found four supportive elements of arts integration. Arts integration allowed for multiple perspectives allowing students to interpret content in ways that were meaningful to them. Arts integration helped to create a safe atmosphere for taking risks. One student with disabilities noted that the use of music helped reduce the risks associated with written expression and helped him to contribute in a way that embraced his strengths instead of revealing his weaknesses (Lynch, 2007). Lastly, Lynch found that the arts and general curriculum naturally complement each other allowing arts teachers to integrate other subject areas into their instruction substantially. The only restraints found were in time, as teachers must learn not only their own discipline specific standards but art or general curriculum standards as well. Time was also spent in grant writing to subsidize the program, tracking spending, and running afterschool arts clubs, arranging integration schedules, hiring/finding/paying artists-in-residences, and rehearsing performances.

Lynch pointed out that No Child Left Behind “requires schools to define curriculum in terms of language, thereby restricting the kinds of opportunities students have to encounter other forms of communication” (p. 38). The focus has shifted from teaching children to teaching curriculum. Her study revealed that when the arts work in conjunction with classroom content, all students are supported enhancing creation and expression of meaning.


This section has reviewed research on the characteristics of students with learning disabilities, benefits of arts integration for students with disabilities, the arts and social development, the arts and cognitive development, measurement of arts integration, and the supportive elements of arts integration. Arts integration gives students voice, choice, and assess increasing academic achievement, self confidence, cognitive skills, and social skills. Evidence also showed that further research is needed in assessment of students with disabilities in the area of arts integration, further research regarding teacher training and support, and effective ways of student assessment.

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