Modification, Differentiation, Adaptation and the Art Classroom

Today, teaching in the diverse environment that we do, thinking concretely about modification, differentiation, and adaptation is vital.
Currently, I work in a Title I environment and my students represent an amazing range of abilities, disabilities, behaviors, and circumstances. Yet, there are a few commonalities. For many of my students, for a variety of reasons, home a pretty wretched place; unfortunately for some, school is not much better. There are quite a few students in every school who just seem to hate the place; and at my school that seems to be a pretty big number.
When I was in school Art is what made the rest of it bearable and manageable. It was a place wherein I was happy; I got to be creative, have multiple answers, and had my voice heard. It is important to me that my classroom is a haven of sorts for my students. I want them to learn about Art, true. But more importantly, I want them to develop their creativity and ultimately, feel good about themselves and about being at school.
Often, I am not able to do much to change a student’s home life, but I can ensure that at least one hour of their school day is pleasant, fun, and a place wherein they know that they are important to me and that their thoughts are important to the whole class. In order to do that, my Art classroom must be one of the most inclusive and open classrooms in the school.
I’ll tell you a quick secret. I have a nickname; it is “Wild-Child Whisperer.” I’m known for being “good” with the kids that are “bad.” I’m not particularly empathetic; I just want everyone to enjoy Art, and that means the so-called “bad” kids too.
Here are some of the methods I use to ensure the accessibility of Art:
Talk to your Special Education department. Educate yourself about students.
-If you are a “Wild-Child Whisperer,” your classroom will become a haven for difficult students.
-Make a point to discuss modifications and adaptations for specific students with your Special Education department.
-Respect your paraprofessionals. These are some of the most over-worked people in education and many of them spend all-day with some of the most nerve-trying students in the building.
-Enlist the aid of your paraprofessionals. Most paras don’t have certification and due to this their expertise is often over-looked. However, paras spend all day (or most of the day) with students and they almost always have all the ins and outs of students’ modifications and adaptations memorized. They also are privy to all the nuances of students’ behaviors, and often know a lot about a students’ home lives. Paras are power-houses of information and knowledge. When in doubt, ask a para. Also, as human beings, they appreciate having their knowledge base respected.
Students with auditory tics, who display un-controlled noise making, and/or blurt/yell uncontrollably:
-Ignore any and all noise the student makes. If you recognize it, the rest of the class will think they should recognize it too.
-If the students blurts/yells at another student call the non-noisemaking student up to you. Tell him/her “When someone butts into a conversation that they are not a part of, the best way to get them to leave is to ignore them.”
-If the noise-making student is ever late for class, absent etc. use that opportunity to talk to the rest of the class. It is unethical to share the any specifics about another student with the class but you can say something like “Sometimes we have classmates that make unusual noises. When that happens we are going to ignore those noises. If the noises in particular bother you, please don’t talk to the student making the noises. Please come and talk to me and we will handle it together.”
-Truthfully, there isn’t much you can do to stop any noise-making tics. If the student is blurting/yelling sometimes you can talk to him/her quietly and ask them to stop and/or talk to you prior to yelling.
Students who are EBD (emotional behavior disorder), have anger management issues, and/or are deliberately disruptive:
-Kids who are disruptive are usually displaying displaced behavior due to some really troubling circumstance.
-Raising your voice/yelling and/or getting into a power struggle with these students will not work.
-When at all possible, do not allow the disruption to derail your class. Instead, calmly say something like “Please stop; you and I will discuss this in a minute” and continue with class.
-Most anger is a narcissistic behavior. When you talk to an angry student appeal to the student’s sense of self by saying things like “I want to keep you out of trouble, I want to help you, let me know what I can do to help you succeed” etc. etc.
-Do not ask an angry student to empathize. Most angry students are angry due to circumstances wherein no one is considering their feelings. Asking them to emotionally give before they get will not work and is asking too much of them.
-Set-up a “cool down” place and share it with the students. Mine is directly outside my doorway in an alcove I can see inside the classroom. Students can go there to calm down, breathe deep, and/or wait for me so they can discuss what has made them upset. It sounds too easy, but I can’t tell you how much this works.
-Prevent angry behaviors by talking to the student prior to class about what you can do to help them. Developing a non-verbal signal they can share with you during class is helpful too.
avoid frustration and tantrums by anticipating the abilities of your students. For instance, I had student try using compasses and then provided this template alternative.
Students who have Asperger’s and/or are somewhere on the Autism scale:
-Since these students represent a wide range of skills and abilities, check the rest of the topics for specific information.
-Many of these students have very strong feelings about loud noises, high-pitched sounds, textures, and getting dirty. Since almost all of that happens in the Art room, you need to anticipate when a set of circumstances will be overwhelming to a student and provide an alternative.
-During days wherein there will be loud and/or high-pitched sounds I arrange for these students to wait in the classroom across the hall until the noise-making is over.
-I have a set of neoprene (latex is a common allergy) gloves and plastic baggies to cover hands to prevent distress about textures and dirt.
-These students are always allowed to use the sink, yet they often don’t. Just knowing that they have the power to remove dirt at any time from their hands seems to be enough comfort.
This student LOVED sewing but HATES glue!
Students with physical limitations
-Talk to your Special Education department about any current and/or on-going technologies and/or modifications the student is using and educate yourself.
-Develop a non-verbal signal for the student to ask for your assistance. To be truly inclusive, you cannot sit by the student and provide him/her with every small thing s/he needs. Instead, use a sheet of paper that is one color on one side and a different color on the other. Have one color represent “I’m good” and the other color represent “I need help.” By using this simple tool, students can try when they want and solicit aid discreetly when needed.
-Provide the option of table easels. For students with palsies and/or physically degenerative disorders table easels are easier to reach. If you do not have table easels ask the Technology and/or Typing teacher if you can borrow a few of their book stands.
-Provide the option of clipboards. For many of these students, working in their laps is the most accessible option; the clipboard allows for this.
-Develop modeling clay as a gripper for pens, pencils, crayons, and paintbrushes. Since many of these students can’t hold a tight grip, wrapping clay around a pencil provides for a great option.
-Provide scissors that bounce open on a spring. Fiskars makes an excellent variety of these. ALL of my students want to use them!
-Assign student helpers. Pick out students who are mature enough to be polite and discreet. Ask them to get to class early and move chairs of the path of wheelchair/crutches/canes/walkers. Ask these students to always get a double of any material they get up to grab and ask them to leave it in the middle of their table. In this way, they aren’t specifically getting a material for a “needy” student, but rather are just providing extra for the whole table.
-Talk to the student! It is important the student knows they can ask you for aid and also that you respect them as an individual.
-Push them to their limits (without going past the limit). Avoid making things too easy. Art should be accessible, and it should also be challenging. Students who have to try and then achieve something big are proud of themselves! You don’t want to deprive your students of that opportunity.
a great pair of “bouncy” scissors

This student sometimes prefers to work on a clipboard. I always put one nearby and he can choose his preference without making a request.

This student tried printmaking but couldn’t control the gouge enough to make specific cuts. Instead, s/he used scissors to cut a plate

finished artwork
Learned Helplessness:
-Some students grow accustomed to being aided and prefer to be enabled.
-While the path of least resistance is to just aid them all they want, you are harming the student. Eventually, these students will be adults and your job is to help them be the best they can be. Some students will get upset and display negative behavior when you deny them over-aiding, but if you are well-educated on their adaptations, and modifications, you can be sure you are doing right by the student.
-Be fair, specific, and matter-of-fact. When asked to over-aid, tell the student you know s/he doesn’t need certain aid and make it clear you won’t be providing it.
-Be consistent.
-Reason. For example, I had a student who told me he couldn’t be expected to peel the crayon paper off the crayon because his hands were “too big.” I showed him my hands, which are bigger and then said: “Well, you obviously use your hands for lots of things because I can see callouses and dirt in places. I bet you can do this too!”
-Have Plan A. . .But, have Plan B, C, & D.
-In nearly all of my classes I have at least two and as many as five students who have already taken Art this year. The reasons for re-taking Art vary according to student, but none of the students are re-taking due to grades or because they specifically wanted Art again. I do not want them to repeat projects because that is boring and because their boredom leads to poor behavior. Instead, I run as many as three different projects in my classroom at all times. I’m fluid about non-repeating Art students trying out the repeating Art students projects.
-Have modification and adaptation tools on-hand and ready-to-go. Over anticipate what you might need and have tools ready.
-Set up your Art room in such a way that there are a variety of tools and materials that students can access on their own, without request. This saves you so much time, and it encourages creativity and personal responsibility.
-Always, always, always have an engaging and fun “I’m Finished” assignment that students can access on their own.
Some of us were sewing, some of us were printmaking, some of us were painting! All on the same day in the same class!

A completed sewing project!

I hope you find these tips and tricks helpful! I’m curious. What methods do use in your classroom that are “indispensible?”

12 thoughts on “Modification, Differentiation, Adaptation and the Art Classroom”

  1. WOW! You are truly a gift to your school and to us. Thanks so much for sharing. I don't have half of these issues but the ones I have will be served better with your suggestions!

  2. I think large clipboards are great for everyone! I am really short and I have a hard time with standard height tables and chairs…sitting on the edge of the chair or dangling my legs can get exhausting. It's nice to have a movable surface that I can put in my lap to work on. I also think middle school students spend so much of their day sitting in a chair that it is nice to allow them to work sitting on the floor with clipboard when they need a change. I'm thinking of putting a love seat in my room which is big enough this year and making it a special reward to sit on it with a friend and work on your art on a large clip board.

  3. I'm flexible about seating with my special kids. I seat the kids differently each art class, usually by handing out a colored pop stick. I have a autistic 2nd grade boy who is thrilled when I let him pick who to sit with (he usually comes in after the other kids have arrived). Even if he didn't get a colored pop stick, he loves putting a pretend one in the cup when I collect them. An emotionally challenged 5th grade boy sometimes asks to sit alone (this class has assigned seats). He's thrilled if I clean a space for him at the supply table or anywhere. I feel that if he thinks he'll work better alone, he probably will!By the way, in that first photo your room looks HUGE! Is it just the way the pic was taken or is it really that big?

  4. What a great post, thanks for sharing! Yes, your room DOES look huge in that photo and the eagle drawn by your student is fantastic! Along with all the adaptations you mentioned, I also take clothespins and pin them to a small, cut sponge as an alternative to paintbrushes. What I do find, though, is that a lot of my students who don't need the adaptations want to use the different tools because, well… they're different. I don't have a class set of everything (unless it's something I've made) purely because of budget, so I always find myself having to explain why some students need them more than others and for some, it's just hard for them to grasp for some reason.

  5. Awesome tips, thanks, Amy! I have a few (at least 3 off the top of my head) students with hand deformities and though I have special scissors available, they have pretty much learned how to get by with the normal supplies.I have a student with problems differentiating colors (apparently not full-blown color blind) and I seated him near a friendly student who is his “color buddy” and will help him, without me asking, when we need to pick out certain colors.My schools have the attendance centers for the ED kids of that age group in the district so I have a self contained class with their own art time and 2 paras (for about 8 kids) at one school. I don't have any empty slots at my other school so the students from the ED class always come with paras. One class has about 22 students each time they attend with up to 7 ED kids and usually 3 paras at once. It can get pretty hectic! I don't have to adapt anything since their paras are right there to handle anything that comes up.

  6. Amy – These are great reminders for all teachers to be attuned to the needs of students. Thanks for the suggestions and the willingness to share:)

  7. Thanks for posting your philosophy and tips. I agree with everything, especially communication with the special ed teacher and aide. I will add a couple of thoughts: *the childs's abilities may grow and develop over time. Not only is each child unique, but each school year with the child is unique. Strategies need to develop over time. *blurting can be due to anxiety. I have a student who constantly blurts when he doesn't know what is happening next. Now he arrives two minutes early and I preview the entire day's lesson. *Some students are not able or willing to sit through a 7-10 minute famous artist powerpoint. Provide quiet activities, or ask that they arrive a few minutes late. *your chores may be stimulating activity for certain kids: one child is sorting my giant box of bottle caps by color. Again, ask the teacher. *Finally, I have an app on my iPhone call You Can Handle Them All (YCHA) which provides suggestions for 124 different problem behaviors. Not for all kids, but it is advice in my pocket.

  8. Ms. Art Teacher – I AGREE! I try to offer the floor to my kids. . .But most of my students use a laundro-mat and wear clothing 2x's before washing. . .So, they are reluctant. I really like your idea of a loveseat! I'm not sure if that would work in my environment but it is such a great idea and a wonderful incentive.Phyl – Your comment about having different modifications for different kids in different classes is so dead on. Such an excellent point! And, yes. My room is actually that big and there is a big corner you can't even see in that picture. Am I lucky or what?!?Hannah – OMIGOSH! I am going to try out the clothespins idea; such a great tip. Thank you so much for sharing. Since my students are older most of them understand w/o being told that modified tools are for students who have specific needs. But, if a student is adamant about trying that tool, I try to accommodate. . .Even if it means the special needs kid share for a second or two. Sharing is an important part of learning as well. And, I've been impressed, when my kids use modified tools they usually pick up some cool tricks too. . . which they then share with the class. . And, I already said the bouncy scissors are loved by all! For me, right now, it all seems to work okay.Katie – I think your “color buddy” system is spot on. When I taught elementary I tested all the kids every year for color blindness (secretly and individually). If any struggled with the test, I contacted their parents, explained that I was NOT a professional and encouraged them to re-test with a professional. I've had students as old as 5th grade have un-diagnosed color-blindness! Parents were always so appreciative. In my county teachers are expected to provide the modifications to the paras. I know my paras would not appreciate my expecting them to modify. . . . So maybe my situation is unique? Rina – You have SO many excellent points! Children do change at sometimes fast and then sometimes slow intervals. And, your comments about anxiety are excellent! Thank you so much for sharing!Thank you all for sharing!! Since we are often the only Art Teacher around it can get lonely; having your thoughts here always is helpful!

  9. I would be much more inclined to try Alien Frontiers. I played Kingsburg once, and I am not anxious to revisit it, though I like the dice-placement mechanic in theory. Alien Frontiers looks like it “fixes” a lot of what I didn't like about Kingsburg (namely, why does the game outlast the fun by an hour or more?). SEO strategies to boost traffic.

  10. Amy;Thank you for sharing your strategies for differentiation. I am definitely going to use what I can, beginning Monday! Instead of a loveseat in my tiny art/music room, I have my teacher desk as the ART ANGEL seat. There is no “secret behavior” to being the art angel, I just randomly pick a new student each week. This is also a social skill to practice because many other kids will go “oh…what?” when they aren't the one chosen. I then review what a positive attitude would look like and we practice. The student in the art angel seat/desk feels very proud. They are allowed to ring the chimes that I use when I need the class' attention.

  11. I hope all art teacher realize that our paras are essential. They care dearly about their students and are very aware of their needs and limitations. We can scale, modify and differentiate to meet requirements. The paras are there like a liaison to make those students enjoy and want to return,Thanks for your thoughts

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