Performing Arts for Special Needs: Applied to our Communities

            My name is Chelsea Merritt , and I am a senior Interdisciplinary Studies Major at Plymouth State University. My Interdisciplinary Studies program is titled Performing Arts for Special Needs, and emphasizes how to service children with special needs through the outlets of music, theatre, and dance. I have a great deal of experience working with individuals with special needs; one of my youngest cousins has Asperger’s Syndrome, and I worked very closely with a dear friend of mine all through high school who has Autism. Both of these people hold a very special place in my heart, and have inspired much of the work I have done, and hope to do, as a performer and advocate. When creating my program, I integrated the disciplines of performing arts, special education, and psychology. My program addresses the large societal need for specialized programs like this for individuals with special needs. This is a complex problem, and interdisciplinary thinking allows me to approach this problem by understanding and integrating the insights and techniques of performing arts, teaching practices of special education, and the developmental insight of psychology. As a future educator and performer, my goal is to be able to support individuals with high and low incidence disabilities throughout the community. To me, the community includes both extracurricular and in school experiences. This project relates to my major because it focuses on: 1.) Bringing performing arts to the very specific audience of individuals with special needs, as my program title suggests (Performing Arts for Special Needs) 2.) How performing arts can be used to activate learning, and 3.) How performing arts creates a more inclusive environment for individuals with special needs. Being a trailblazer for these types of services is exactly the kind of work I hope to be doing with my degree once I leave Plymouth State University.

            As an advocate for individuals with special needs, I have always been interested in how I could use my love of performing arts to create a more supportive and inclusive community for all of its members.  Historically and socially, there have always been limited opportunities for children with autism, sensory needs, and other disabilities to fully engage in performing arts as both viewers and participants. This is what makes my research so important—a large area of societal enjoyment is still not 100% completely accessible to all members our community. The largest breakthrough for individuals with special needs in the theatre came in the form of the 2011 Autism Theatre Initiative by the Theatre Development Fund.This initiative focused on how to create accessible theatre programs for all performers. I have created a hypothetical summer camp inspired by the efforts of this development. My camp will focus on how to academically, emotionally, and developmentally support children with special needs through the outlets of music, theatre, and dance. Creating this project is vital, because this camp is a place that will foster emotional and interpersonal growth within the children who attend. More importantly, this camp will encourage growth and acceptance of individuals with special needs within the inclusive communities who support them. It is because of this ideology that I chose to title my camp, The Growing Place.

            My project requires using an interdisciplinary approach for several reasons, the first reason being that there is a large societal need for specialized programs like this in our area of New England. While there are plenty of theatrical opportunities for people who don’t have disabilities, there is a dearth of theatre services for individuals with special needs. Also, I need to utilize an interdisciplinary approach because providing support to children with special needs through the arts is a complex problem. By this, I mean that creating my camp requires insights from more than one discipline to effectively address this issue. The most comprehensive way to implement this kind of support program for individuals with special needs requires the integration of techniques of performing arts, teaching practices of special education, and the developmental insight of psychology. Interdisciplinarians Julie ThompsonKlein and WilliamNewell share this frame of thought about why people should utilize interdisciplinary thinking, and provide this definition for Interdisciplinary Studies:
Interdisciplinary studies is a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or
addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single
discipline or profession…[It] draws on disciplinary perspectives and integrates their
insights through a more comprehensive perspective. (Repko

            Once I established the need for an interdisciplinary approach, I then decided which disciplines I would draw from to create my camp. Possible relevant disciplines included:

history—history of special education; special education 
sociology—societal views on people with disabilities and their experiences in society
law—legal rights of individuals with special needs
performing arts—pedagogy and technique
psychology—developmental, emotional, and cognitive needs of people with disabilities.

After some preliminary research, I decided it was most appropriate to draw from the disciplines of performing arts, special education, and psychology. The discipline of theatre arts (music, theatre, and dance) is crucially important to this project, since the services offered through my camp are being presented through various forms of the arts. The discipline of special education (how to teach to individuals with special needs) is integral to creating my camp, since my target audience is children with disabilities. Psychology is also a necessary discipline I need to research to create my camp, because I want to 1.) Develop a better understanding of the needs of the people I will serve and 2.) Understand what positive emotional, developmental, and educational effects performing arts offers to people with disabilities.

            My primary method of exploring my topic was conducting a literature search about the primary disciplines used to create my camp. I began the literature search by typing terms such as “performing arts and special education” or “psychology and performing arts” into Google, Google Books, and PSU’s library databases. This brought up a plethora of different books, articles, and websites that I began to sift through looking for sources. After obtaining the sources, I took notes and created a data table that organized the key insights of each discipline (which I will discuss in greater detail in a later section of this text). Other methods included viewing the websites of other summer camp programs for kids with special needs, or places that offer performing arts classes, workshops, and summer programs. Some of the websites that were helpful in formatting the content and layout of my camp website were Camp Lee Mar, and Long Lake Camp for the Arts.  

            As I mentioned in the above paragraph, once I completed my lit search, I completed a data table and notes . These two documents analyzed the focus of the texts’ insights, as well as an evaluation of those insights. While I referenced over 15 different sources while completing my literature search, some texts provided extremely important disciplinary insights into the problem. What I found to be most interesting while conducting my lit search was that the texts I referenced didn’t seem to have any conflicting disciplinary views between them. All of the texts strived to analyze and describe the importance, need, and demand for the use of arts integration/therapy for supporting individuals with special needs.

             In the discipline of performing arts, the majority of the sources I referenced focused on how to modify theatre arts to be more accessible to all types of performers, and the techniques necessary to do so. The text Wings toFly: Bringing Theatre Arts to Special Education by Sally D. Bailey was among the most influential texts I used to complete my project. The insights provided from this text about the discipline of performing arts focused specifically on how to provide theatre art services to children with special needs, and why this need is so important socially and historically. Other topics discussed in the book are the spectrum of disabilities that can be served through the arts, and the different area of the arts that can be used to service these individuals (puppetry, improvisation, script writing, music, etc). A quote that I believe appropriately summarizes the message behind her text is as follows: “The power of the arts as a cultural teaching tool can be used to continue the status quo or to change it” (Bailey 4). This text was critical to the development of my project because it digs deep into the issue of why the arts are so powerful and necessary, and how we can use them as a conduit for change and acceptance in our culture. Bailey’s views expressed in this book very much overlapped with Creating Meaning Through Literature and the Arts by Claudia Cornett, and How Drama Activates Learning: ContemporaryResearch and Practice by Michael Anderson. Each of these texts explore how to incorporate integrated arts across the curriculum, and how drama can be used to inspire community achievement, leadership, and social justice.

            The text Arts Integration andSpecial Education by Alida Anderson is another text that provided key ideologies and insight from the discipline of special education. These ideologies included best practices for inclusive education, best practices for providing instruction, and meeting the diverse needs of individuals with special needs. The ideologies of this discipline integrate well with the ideologies of psychology (elaborated below); you need to have a basic understanding of the developmental/psychological needs of individuals with special needs in order to make sure you are able to help them access their education. Anderson’s text specifically offered a ‘theory of action,’ which studies how linguistic, cognitive, and meaningful student engagement relates to art integration and learning contexts. Anderson states that the text:
“connects the interdisciplinary framework in human development and linguistics, special education and urban education with primary action research by special educators trained in arts integration, working in an inclusive urban charter school with middle-school-aged students” (Anderson Introduction).
Chapter 8, The Research on Arts Integration and Special Education, was particularly insightful. The majority of this chapter focuses on the idea that “Opportunities to learn through the arts also hold potential to enhance students’ quality of life, academic learning, and social growth” (Crockett, Katherine, and Anderson 157). The insights and information provided in this text are very useful for my project, because: 1.) the information has been researched and presented through an interdisciplinary approach, and 2.) focuses on how to apply the results of the research to art integration and special education practices. Again, I can see similarities in the insights between this text, and Cornett’s book (referenced above).  

            The discipline of psychology provided insights on the affects performing arts can have on the cognitive process, executive functioning abilities, and developmental needs of individuals with special needs. This insight was probably the most difficult to analyze and apply to my project because it focused less on the surface level benefits of exposure to the arts, and more on the inner workings of  the psychological processes. However, this does not diminish the need for this discipline in the formation of not only my project, but also special education in general. Here We Are in Music: Oneyear With an Adolescent Creative Music Therapy Group  by Kenneth Aigen encapsulated and explored many of these ideologies through qualitative data from a yearlong group therapy experience for adolescences with developmental disabilities. Aigen provides an in-depth analysis of the clinical aspect of his specific therapy: meeting group and physical needs, body communication: physical statements and contacts, feelings and expression, increasing emotional self awareness, and enhancing interpersonal relations. Aigen’s studies are largely influenced by the improvisational method of Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy. This text is so useful for my project because it offers examples of activities and clinical practices that can be used to facilitate the inter/intrapersonal growth I am striving to provide to the participants of The Growing Place.  

            Creating a program like The Growing Place challenged my disciplinary bias about performing arts, specifically theatre. While conducting my research and applying it to my program I had to avoid the bias of finding texts that only focused on theatre education, or play therapy            . Visual/fine art, music, and dance/movement are all facets of performing arts that can be used to support individuals with special needs. It was also crucial for me to step outside of my theatre bias because not all individuals who would come to my camp would benefit from doing strictly theatre; some campers would be able to best express themselves through music, and others might prefer fine arts! Not only does challenging my disciplinary bias benefit me as an interdisciplinarian, but it also improves the quality and range of services I can offer to my participants! 
            Since completing my interdisciplinary research, my opinions on disciplinary expertise, and how they relate to my problem, have changed. Prior to my research, I believed because I could demonstrate mastery in performing arts, that meant that I would have no problem being able to appropriately teach students with special needs. Not only is this a disciplinary bias, but is a very limited disciplinary perspective that ignores the other aspects of this complex problem. Only focusing on the pedagogy and technique of performing arts ignores the cognitive and educational needs of the participants of my camp. By integrating the disciplines of performing arts, special education, and psychology, I am able to create programs that access different levels of learning, development, and serve a wider spectrum of individuals and abilities.

            While creating this project has increased my awareness of biases and perception of disciplinary expertise, I have also been able to increase my understanding of the problem as a whole. As I stated previously, there are quite a few disciplines that influence this problem: Education, history, sociology, performing arts, and psychology (to name a few). While I may not have explored each of them with the same depth throughout my research, I now have a much better understanding how each of these disciplines work together to create the optimal inclusive environment for individuals with disabilities. I have learned that without understanding the social and historical needs for inclusive special education services (of any variety) you will not be able to effectively justify why people should care so much about this cause. Furthermore, if you are unaware of the educational, psychological, and developmental needs of people with disabilities, you will not know how to create programs that optimally access these areas of needs. In simpler terms, creating The Growing Place has shown me that the problem I am addressing is like a 1,000 piece puzzle; you can have 999 pieces, but your eye won’t be able to ignore the hole where that one piece is missing!

            With the knowledge I have gained, through interdisciplinary studies and creating this project, I have been able to investigate and integrate the worlds of special education, psychology, and performing arts. As a result, I have gained new perspectives, insights, and information that I will use to improve the quality of special education supports and services. While completing a service learning practicum this past semester, I was able to witness firsthand the learning conditions of children with and without disabilities in the general education setting. If I wasn’t passionate about improving the quality of the education beforehand, I definitely was after words.
What struck me most was the need for differentiation across the curriculum to reach all students, especially the students I worked with who had special needs. Even within the discipline of education, you are taught the importance of ideologies such as UniversalDesign for Learning (UDL), Multiple Intelligence'sResponse to Intervention, and Differentiated Instruction.These principles are integrated simultaneously into the classroom enable to teachers teach to a variety of learning styles and abilities. During my practicum, I didn’t see any of these ideologies being implemented. What I did see were students being sent to a learning lab and support room as a consequence, students discouraged from using pictures to enhance their assignments, and students with documented low-incidence disabilities being ignored in class. I am hesitant to say the discrepancies I witnessed are a result of “being a bad teacher.” However, I am certain that many of these actions are a result of a disconnect of the school on different levels could have been handled in a very different way.
               For example, students worked predominantly out of workbooks, on the same standardized assignments. While I think that a workbook can be useful for teaching students things like how to organize a letter, argument, essay, etc., this does not provide any room for differentiated instruction, teaching to multiple intelligences, or multiple means of representation, engagement, or expression. I worked one on one with a student with ADHD (low-incidence disability), with very high energy, who has trouble completing seatwork effectively. For this student, while working on something like a persuasive argument, it might have been more beneficial to complete a graphic organizer from the workbook, and then act out his argument to the class. Doing this integrates the ideas of multiple means of engagement and expression as described in UDL, appeals to the verbal learning style, allows him to expel energy in a meaningful way, and utilizes arts integration to activate curriculum and student learning in the classroom. This is one of a plethora of examples of how the interdisciplinary research I have conducted can be taken from my college courses, and applied to a classroom of my own in the future.

            Upon completing my capstone project, I was able to take my understanding of this topic to a new level through an interdisciplinary approach. It is amazing that there have been so many developments in the world of performing arts and special education, and that people involved in these disciplines are beginning to see the need to provide this service to everyone in the community at large. The texts analyzed to create this paper and project have provided me with numerous examples, case studies, research etc. that shows how drama activates learning, and how teachers and performers alike can use these practices to create easier access to curriculum, build on social skills, and create opportunities for growth within their students/performers with special needs. While this paper only provides a snap shot of the benefits of integration and participation in the arts, there is no denying that the arts are an invaluable tool that activates community support, engages students in curriculum, and fosters inter/intrapersonal growth. It is the responsibility of performers, teachers, and advocates everywhere to keep pushing for these opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The progress that has been made thus far is extremely inspiring. As a professional, I cannot wait to keep this new integrated educational and recreational ideology flowing throughout our communities! 

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Performing Arts for Special Needs: Applied to Our Communities by Chelsea Merritt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


1 comment:

  1. Looks like a glitch down there in the Works Cited-- can you fix that?

    A great paper, Chelsea. The paper does a wonderful job explaining the context into which your summer camp plans are situated. This demonstrates the thoroughness of the frameworks that are informing your camp design, and I think the reason the site is so strong is that you can sense that you are building a really informed perspective on your field. You have done great work in the course. We were proud to award you the Outstanding Interdisciplinary Studies Graduating Senior award this year, and I can't wait to see where this work takes you!