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How the Arts Can Help Struggling Learners

Teacher and students at a clay studioKnowing how to help a child who struggles to learn is one of the greatest parenting challenges imaginable. When our children don’t fit the traditional model of what a student is or should be able to do, it can be a painful and frustrating experience for the entire family. Is it possible that the arts, while not a cure-all for what affects a child’s learning process, can provide a lifeline to children who are having trouble succeeding in school?

Beth Olshansky, author of “The Power of Pictures: Creating Pathways to Literacy Through Art,” thinks so. She noticed that with the help of a paintbrush, her daughter was able to access and express imaginative ideas and descriptive language that were otherwise not available to her. Beth was so intrigued by what she observed in her daughter’s learning process that she founded a program called Picturing Writing, to provide struggling learners with artistic means to become stronger readers and writers.

Laura, a parent of an elementary school-aged child, saw similar things happen with her daughter. She describes Carly as a hardworking, compassionate child with an active imagination and solid thinking skills, but who also has been diagnosed with severe, double-deficit dyslexia. Carly draws images to help her remember the meaning of words, because written language does not. Laura recalls a time when Carly had to complete a research assignment: “Because writing, even formulating ideas, linearly is difficult for her, we asked permission for her to express herself through art. She chose clay.” Carly created sculptures to reflect her understanding of concepts and ideas she was learning. Laura now adamantly believes that children can demonstrate nuances they cannot verbally express through visual arts.

Laura also believes that engagement in the arts helps Carly see herself as a successful learner. “Carly elected to take a class in sculpture over the summer. Now we can remind her that at one time she didn’t know to carve in stone, and by the end of the class she had created a bird and a fish.”

Jan’s experience echoes Beth’s and Laura’s. She says: “My son has ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and bipolar disorder. He has trouble focusing and holding himself together during the school day, often coming home and completely falling apart … but he loves to build and create.” Through art, “he is able to easily problem solve … his imagination runs and his explanation for each piece’s function is complex and clever. This is one of his strengths.” Jan also says that her son takes an art class outside of school. “He loves this class and comes home calm, happy, proud of his creations, and wanting to draw!”

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Education agree with what Beth, Laura, and Jan discovered on their own: the importance of the arts in children’s lives. A study shared at the 2009 Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit reported that children showed more motivation, paid closer attention, and remembered what they learned more easily when the arts were integrated into the curriculum.

If you notice that your child is struggling to learn or is becoming disengaged in school, here are a few strategies for how to lean on the arts as your ally and advocate.

Reluctance writing: If your child shows anxiety facing a blank page, give him the chance to build something, dance, make music, create a collage or draw a picture before ever putting a pen to paper. Engaging in concrete, visually and kinesthetically rich experiences will stimulate language development and support his ability to express his ideas with words.

Communicating with teachers: You might need to be your child’s advocate if her teacher does not yet understand the relationship between the arts and learning. Explain to the teacher that artistic projects can help make your child’s thinking more visible to others, assist her memory and lead to more success in school.

Talk to your child about his or her strengths: Too often, children whose abilities lie in the visual, spatial and kinesthetic realms believe themselves to be less intelligent than their peers, especially in a school culture with so much standardized testing. The most important lifeline your child can have is the understanding that being artistic is a way of being “smart”!

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