Special Education Services

The Role of Art Therapy in Special Education

Special education can reveal a variety of challenges. For instructors, finding a technique that helps gain confidence while working toward overcoming these challenges is important. Art therapy is one potential option for instructors, as it delivers benefits for the student in a way that can help them find enjoyment and success in school.

One of the best things about making use of art therapy in special education classrooms is the ability to tailor the program to each child. One child may respond to hands-on art creation projects. Another student may prefer to study artwork throughout history.

Understanding your child’s options for making use of art therapy in school can help you serve as an advocate for your child. Parents should play a key role in helping school officials develop the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). Our guide to using art therapy in special education will aim to give you the information you need to determine whether this technique will be helpful for your child’s education.

Options for Using Art Therapy in Special Education Classrooms

Through my work as an autism specialist in a large school district in Washington state, I was able to work with families and instructors to incorporate art therapy into the classroom. I love the idea of introducing art therapy to students! For some students, art is the doorway to opening a whole new level of engagement in and out of the classroom.

  • What Is Art Therapy?
  • Understanding What Art Therapy Is Not
  • Goals for Using Art Therapy
  • Determining Whether a Student Can Benefit From Art Therapy
  • Putting Art Therapy Into Action

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is any type of artistic endeavor that allows people to improve their emotional, mental, and physical outlook. Although we will focus on how it works in the special education classroom, almost anyone can make use of art therapy for reducing stress or for improving self-esteem. 

Through art therapy, people can develop alternative modes of expressing themselves or communicating with others. For a student who struggles with the typical methods of communication, art therapy may open new avenues.

When working with art therapy, students often make use of traditional art supplies. Although other forms of artistic expression exist in special education, such as with dance or music therapy, art therapy focuses on the use of traditional art supplies to create artwork. Some of those traditional supplies can include using things like:

  • Paint
  • Crayons
  • Colored pencils
  • Charcoal
  • Markers
  • Construction paper
  • Origami
  • Photography editing and prints
  • Digital drawing or painting software
  • Clay
  • Plaster
  • Metal artwork

Art therapy goes beyond the use of art supplies and creating artwork. Although, an art therapist can identify the psychology behind some of the student’s choices during art projects.

As students express their creativity, they will decide what kind of art project they want to do. They will select the materials and the subject matter. They may even decide whether they want to show the project to peers, to parents, to teachers, to the art therapist, or to some combination of these people. 

Art therapists are able to study these decisions. Through this examination of the student’s decisions during art therapy projects, art therapists can better understand the feelings and emotions of the students. 

Additionally, art therapists receive training on picking up on the nonverbal clues students generate while performing their art projects. When working with students who may have difficulty expressing themselves with traditional speech or writing, the ability of the art therapist to pick up on these nonverbal cues is even more important.

The art therapist can help special education students work through issues they may be having in terms of managing behavior or in dealing with emotions from trauma.

Becoming an Art Therapist

For someone to become an art therapist, he or she will need extensive training and education. Many universities offer undergraduate and master’s degrees in art therapy, according to the American Art Therapy Association.  

An art therapist will work toward a thorough understanding of both art techniques and therapy techniques. This will happen through education and training.

To complete their educational requirements, art therapists may need to learn about art history, traditions of artwork in various cultures, and artistic techniques. On the therapeutic side, the licensed art therapist should have professional training in psychological therapies and theories, as well as in using therapeutic services.

Allowing Students to Express Themselves

Art is a highly creative process, which gives children the ability to express themselves in a nontraditional way. Expressing emotions or communicating with others can be difficult for some children in the special education classroom. Using art therapy may open these lines of communication.

I felt strongly about the benefits of art therapy even before experiencing it in practice first hand. But after witnessing so many students respond favorably to this program, I believe even more strongly in it.

Few activities deliver the overarching benefits of allowing children to express themselves in art projects. For students who struggle to communicate with peers, talking about art can open doors that other activities struggle to match. Many aspects of art therapy don’t rely on right and wrong answers, which may be the perfect solution for certain learners.

Additionally, as students in the special education classroom see the projects and artwork that their peers complete, they can receive additional benefits. For example, students may be able to increase their awareness of the emotions of peers through the artwork the peers create. This can unlock improved personal development and coping skills for the student both in school and at home.

Understanding What Art Therapy Is Not

Just because someone advertises himself or herself as an art therapist, it doesn’t mean this is the case. To serve as an art therapist, someone must have the proper training, education, and certification. 

Sometimes, businesses or organizations may misidentify apps or booklets as art therapy tools. A simple app that someone would work on at home with no help from a licensed art therapist does not fit the definition of art therapy. 

Certainly, apps and coloring books can provide benefits for some people in terms of helping with stress reduction or improved self-esteem. But these tools alone cannot provide the same potential benefits as working with a licensed art therapist.

When providing art therapy for special education classrooms, school districts cannot simply place an art teacher in the room for an hour and let students create artwork. The art therapist’s training allows for the use of art as a therapeutic tool for students. The art therapist can work with the student on various behavioral or emotional issues through the development of an art project.

Art teachers in schools certainly provide significant benefits for all students. But they do not generate the therapeutic aspect to art that a licensed art therapist can provide.

Goals for Using Art Therapy

Art therapy can help students with special needs make improvements with issues related to physical, behavioral, and emotional behavior. Students can work toward achieving a wide range of goals through art therapy, according to the American Art Therapy Association, including improved:

  • Cognitive functions
  • Mood control
  • Relaxation
  • Stress relief
  • Fine motor skills
  • Self-esteem
  • Expression
  • Social skills
  • Communication skills
  • Emotional growth
  • Creative growth

Art therapists will have clinical training and advanced education to give them the tools to help students work toward reaching their goals. 

Determining Whether a Student Can Benefit From Art Therapy

Before choosing to use art therapy for a particular student, school districts may want to closely study the student’s needs and the potential benefits of an art therapy program. School districts may want to try to find other ways to help a student before turning to art therapy.

Some of the guidelines that a school district may use to try to determine if a student can have success with art therapy include:

  • Seeking to improve communication skills for children who experience significant introverted behavior.
  • Seeking to unlock the ability to express emotions for a child who struggles in this area.
  • Helping students understand their emotions as they profess them during art therapy.
  • Studying past results the child experienced during art therapy, looking for improved confidence and improved self-esteem results.
  • Studying whether students have a particular aptitude for art.
  • Helping students with significant trauma express their feelings in a healthy way.

Even though these may be some of the basic guidelines a school’s IEP team will follow to determine whether a single student can benefit from art therapy, they will not be the final determining factor. The IEP team really must drill down to the specific needs of each student when figuring out whether art therapy is a potentially helpful educational tool.

Advanced Artistic Skills Are Not a Requirement for Students to Use Art Therapy

One of the best things about art therapy is that students don’t need to have advanced skills to participate. They don’t need extra training to start with art. They don’t have to create art that others would consider “good.” They simply have to relax and enjoy themselves as they work on the project.

Art is a means of expressing feelings and creatively introducing thoughts and ideas. There is no single “right” way to complete a piece of art. Students can express their own creative ideas when participating in art therapy, so they don’t have to worry about mistakes. This can create a feeling of freedom that he or she may not have with other aspects of the educational journey.

Some students will have impressive artistic skills, while others will not possess traditional art skills. But when participating in art therapy, the level of artistic skill for the student doesn’t really matter. It’s far more important for the student to trust the process and to feel comfortable expressing his or her ideas.

Putting Art Therapy Into Action

Art therapy programs exist in many school districts in the United States already. If your district does not offer art therapy yet, studying some of the programs in place elsewhere in the country may help your district determine the best way forward.

For example, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system began using art therapy in 1979. It uses creative expression to help special education students improve their cognitive and emotional skills. The goal of this art therapy program is to help students with special needs reach their developmental potential.

The Jersey City Public Schools started its art therapy program in 1993. Its program deploys multiple art therapists across all of the district’s elementary, middle, and high schools. These art therapists work with both general education and special education students in many different areas.

Here are some specific examples of how school districts make use of art therapy in the special education classroom.


When a child on the autism spectrum disorder struggles to express emotion or to communicate, art therapy may be the tool he or she needs to make improvements in these areas. 

Children with autism may find new ways to communicate or to express themselves through the work with the art therapist. Some students with autism may feel more comfortable expressing themselves and communicating using symbols. This capability can open a new world to the student both in school and at home.

Some students with autism may struggle with processing sensory inputs. Art therapy can introduce these students to different textures that can help them process their sensory issues in a healthy way.

Improving Academics

For students who struggle with academics because of behavioral issues, art therapy potentially can reach the root causes of the behavioral issues. This can lead to improved performance across all subject matters. 

A student who struggles in many aspects of school but who feels successful with artistic endeavors may gain some confidence through art therapy sessions. This may carry over into other aspects of the child’s life at school.

Improving Attendance

For some students participating in the special education classroom, simply attending school on a regular basis can be a challenge. A student who is having difficulties with academics, who does not feel confident, or who is unhappy may find multiple reasons to avoid attending school. 

When the student who is struggling misses school, he or she may fall farther behind and experience even greater struggles.

Through the use of art therapy, special education instructors and parents may discover that the enjoyment of artwork motivates the child to attend school more regularly. Art therapy can be fun at the same time it is helping the student. 

And should the work of the art therapist help the child find greater success in school as a whole, the student may gain a sense of confidence that spills over into other academic areas, leading to more regular attendance.

Improving Socialization Skills

Some children may have trouble expressing themselves. This can leave them feeling isolated from their peers in the general education setting. They may struggle to relate to others if they have vastly different ages or needs.

Through art, however, students may be able to relate to some of the feelings the other students are expressing. This can help students empathize with each other, leading to a greater sense of belonging and camaraderie.

Reducing Disruptive Behaviors

Students who lash out at teachers or other students may do so because of an inability to cope with the various emotions they are feeling. Art therapy gives these types of students a creative outlet for expressing their emotions, which may help with behavioral issues.

When a student is having fun with creating art during the art therapy session, he or she may forget about other issues in his or her life, at least for a little while. This may seem like a simple distraction, but it also can lead to better coping skills as the student continues to work with the art therapist.

Overcoming Trauma

For a student who experiences a traumatic situation in another area of his or her life, some of the trauma may spill over into performance at school. Finding a way to process the trauma in a healthy manner can be a challenge, especially if the student doesn’t want to talk or write about the trauma and the feelings associated with it.

The traumatic situation can affect the child for many months or years afterward. It can leave the child with behavioral and emotional issues that manifest as struggles in school and at home. Some students experience depression or a feeling of never being safe because of the inability to process the emotions related to the trauma.

Through art therapy, some students are able to use the creation of artwork to express their feelings and to figure out how to cope with the trauma in a healthier way. 

Fine Motor Skills Development

The use of art supplies can give students a fun way to work on their fine motor skills. After going through physical therapy sessions during the day with learning to hold items and to develop hand-eye coordination, students can pick up a paint brush or make use of a crayon to complete an art project. Some students may respond better to their fine motor skills practice sessions when they are able to work on art at the same time.

Working with clay or small beads during an art project can greatly benefit the child’s traditional fine motor skills development as well. Improvement in this area doesn’t have to rely only on crayons or paint brushes.


If you believe art therapy can be a tool that will help to give your child a better experience and better results from his or her special education program, pursue it! By fully explaining the potential benefits of art therapy for your child to the child’s IEP team, you may be able to convince them to include art therapy as part of the program.

Please share your thoughts on how art therapy helps your child or on how you’d like to start a program in your school. I love feedback from parents and educators! Leave me a comment below or feel free to email me! I’m ready to help with any advice you may need!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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