How Canyons School District is using art to help students with disabilities

A teacher at Canyons School District is using art to help students with disabilities pair up with other students and learn even more.

Jonathan Hale and one of his fellow research partners, Kelby McIntyre Martinez, Assistant Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah joined Good Morning Utah Monday morning to find out how students, whether in special education or not, can help each other learn and grow.

Question: What is peer partnering in an arts Inclusion classroom, and how does it work?

Answer: Arts Inclusion is a concept we initiated that pairs regular-education elementary students in fourth or fifth grade with their similarly aged peers from Canyons’ specialized school for students with severe disabilities. The special education students come to their peers’ classroom at Sprucewood Elementary for an arts inclusion class, and they work as partners on various projects one-on-one with each other.

Question: What are some of the results you’re seeing?

Answer: After teaching an art inclusion class at Sprucewood Elementary in Canyons District for about three years, we have seen peer partners learn how to take on leadership roles and support the needs of their group, and we have seen students with disabilities engage for longer times in art activities or participate vocally, on their own, when they are normally non-verbal. Participating in the program has helped the regular education students learn to be more accepting of others, and it has helped the special education students reach milestones that are often out of reach.

Question: How did you come together to create this research program?

Answer: As a Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program specialist, Jonathan was looking for research opportunities, and he was interested in how art can be a medium to reach students who may have cognitive difficulties. Kelby is the Director of the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program at the University of Utah, so when their paths crossed, they decided to work together, with two other professors from the University of Utah, to see if Jonathan’s hunch that peer partners would be beneficial was correct.

Question: You presented your research at the last Kennedy Center Special Education Conference. What was the reaction there?

Answer: After our presentation, we were contacted by the Art Access program, and they are now replicating our peer partnering model in their program in Washington D.C. and California. We also forged some connections with a dance company who has agreed to come work with our intensive special needs students at Jordan Valley and help train teachers how to dance with students with disabilities. 

BACKGROUND: Hale and a team of researchers from the University of Utah have studied the impact of pairing students with severe special needs with general-education students in an “arts inclusion” class for the past three years. They presented their findings, that general education students helped special education students experience dramatic breakthroughs, at the 2018 Kennedy Center VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference. Since then, other programs in the country have followed their lead, using peer partnering as a way to help both special education and general education students succeed.

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