Revealing how art gives children with SEN a route to self-expression
Any artist will tell you that the process of creating art brings the maker a small window of peace in which to lose themselves. It provides a time for freedom and creativity in a special kind of space where conventional boundaries constructed by society melt away.
These gifts offered by any artistic activity are particularly valuable for children and young people with SEN. These people often experience tighter boundaries in their day-to-day lives and may have little opportunity for self-determination, due to their unique physical or cognitive difficulties. They may also require substantial physical support and intervention resulting in rigid regimentation of their daily routines, which may be largely decided and set by other people.
The chance to find an outlet for free flow creative expression can enable people with SEN to gain a sense of liberation and pride and allow them to experience empowerment. Again, any artist will tell you that their best work is created when they give themselves the freedom to let it flow from deep within.
These precious opportunities can be created effectively within the framework of SEN education. When artists and teachers get together, enthusiasm and creativity often send projects off in different directions which will stretch, motivate and surprise students as they discover their own inner creative magic.
Our experience in special schools includes working with students with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) and those with challenging behaviour. We also deliver the same creative sessions for teachers and artists. The ethos is that no-one can fail and everyone’s work is valued equally and exhibited side by side.
Giving young people with SEN this expressive freedom to work allows both non-verbal and verbal students to communicate their feelings in a relaxed way, according to their own physical ability with no judgements. Art offers students important opportunities for making choices, for example about colour, brush size and which tool to use. This can be a liberating experience for young people who are so used to having decisions made on their behalf by parents, carers and teaching staff.
Art is fun, so it is important to provide inclusive activities that unite everyone – all staff and all students – including students who exhibit challenging behaviour.
Everyone loves active painting and the more creative (and messier) the better. One great activity involves utilising sling shots to throw paint; a bike wheel can be used to spin circles of wood while students pour on paint which then shoots off to create exciting one-off artworks. It’s important to provide old clothes for those involved and covers for wheelchairs to keep everyone protected.
Art can be a bridge that enables mainstream students and those with SEN to work together. Our students were taught different sculpture techniques and, once these young people had made their own sculptures, we asked them if they would like to pass their learning on to Year 6 students in a mainstream school. They were clearly proud and delighted at the prospect of being the teacher and, sparked by the importance of this goal, they practised the different skills required until they felt confident in teaching them to other students.
The benefits of this project were numerous: students’ speech and communication skills improved, as they wanted to impress younger students in their role as teacher; they took their new teaching role very seriously and gained a great deal of self-respect; students with SEN were much more engaged, with those with hearing aids turning them up to pay attention instead of zoning themselves out as they often preferred to do; the achievements and success also gave the participants’ often fragile self-image a much needed boost.
The project did not work so well with older secondary students in mainstream school who, unfortunately, seemed reluctant to engage with the special school students. However, we used this as an opportunity to ask why this was the case and discovered that in fact none of them had ever had dealings with young people with SEN. As a result, many of them did not know how to approach working with students with special needs.
The project also demonstrated, therefore, the value of involving students with SEN in working in the community to encourage people to understand how to relate to them. Art can enable students to succeed, achieve and grow their self-esteem, while also providing children and young people with SEN a chance to find freedom and express themselves.
Professional artists Toni Dickinson and Gordon Dickinson run No Added Sugar, a specialist participatory arts organisation based in Swindon:
This project featured in the picture above introduced secondary students with SEN to mainstream nursery students. The pieces were cut by artists and painted by students with a limited pallet of colours.