By Kristen Paglia, CEO and inclusive arts education researcher
“I wanted to see if there was a graceful, meaningful way for Walker to live in this world – to see for myself if it was possible to create not just a roof over his head for when I was gone, not just an ad hoc solution to his needs, but a community and family he might call his own, even – this was the most radical notion – a liberty and a freedom he could claim.”
~ Ian Brown, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son
These are the words of a father who searched across oceans for a reason to believe that his child would know, as all of us want and need to know, that he was accepted, valued, and belonged. When Ian Brown went looking for communities that would treat his severely disabled son, Walker, with compassion and decency, he discovered that he could expect more. Much more. He found people who believed that when those with and without disabilities share daily life together, the relationships they form are reciprocal and transformative. He found that inclusion – which can be extended to race, socio-cultural background, gender, sexuality, and all our human differences – “produced a collective intelligence that was greater than the sum of its parts.” To Ian Brown, this meant that his son could not only survive society, he could be a meaningful part of it, contributing with purpose and dignity.
You may not expect a post about inclusive arts education research and practice to start with one father’s very human story. It is, in all honesty, difficult balancing credibility with humanity in education – a field largely sustained by being able to quantify mass impact. We are, though, a field equally dependent on humanity. So, keeping individuals – real children and families – at the center of our work may be the most important thing we do to drive school improvement. The 2019 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference, produced through the Education Division of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, adeptly responded to this need to achieve equilibrium between research and practice. The conference brought together educators, researchers, policy-makers, community service providers, and artists to “build skills, transfer knowledge, network, and help shape best practices—improving educational experiences for students with disabilities learning in and through the arts.” I was honored to be there with program evaluation expert, Dr. Rekha S. Rajan, and former P.S. ARTS Associate Program Director, Lora Cawelti, to present our latest research collaboration with the California Alliance for Arts Education on the benefits of inclusive arts education for children with and without disabilities.
Funded through the California Arts Council’s Research in the Arts grant program, our research aims to identify key inclusive arts education teaching practices and activities that we have, over many years, observed to foster children’s social-emotional learning (SEL) in P.S. ARTS classrooms. For the past two decades, education, psychology, and public health professionals have pervasively emphasized the critical role SEL has in individual and societal health, development, innovation, and achievement. Targeted research in schools indicates that SEL teaching strategies and programs yield significant positive student outcomes, including improved behavior, attitudes, and academic performance (e.g. Toch & Miller, 2019). However, positive results are not consistent across all programs and there is no clear consensus on how to best teach social-emotional skills. In order to contribute to information and best practices related to SEL, P.S. ARTS and our research partners will conduct a two-year study tracking the social-emotional growth, particularly social-communication skills, of elementary school students participating in fully inclusive theater and visual arts programs. In keeping with the belief that humans have much to learn from our differences, neither P.S. ARTS’ programs or the proposed research focus exclusively on the benefits of inclusive arts education for students with disabilities. Rather, we are investigating social-emotional learning development associated with students with and without disabilities participating together in the arts. To increase usable knowledge in the field, we will also observe and measure the impact that Teaching Artists’ behaviors and instructional strategies have on students’ social-emotional learning. We hope that approaching research in this way will help flip an enduring, socially detrimental script in which too many educators, parents, and policy-makers justify segregating students with disabilities by claiming that the education for students without disabilities will somehow be diminished.
Our research aims to identify key inclusive teaching practices and activities that we have, over many years, observed to foster children’s social-emotional learning (SEL) in P.S. ARTS classrooms.
Ian Brown’s memoir resonates with us at P.S. ARTS, not only because we believe schools should be safe places where all children feel welcome and valued, but because we have witnessed first-hand the positive impact on learning and development when skilled Teaching Artists guide students with and without disabilities in creating artworks together. Over several years of building inclusive arts education programs in theater and visual arts at the two Los Angeles elementary schools in this study – each with 25% of their students living with moderate and severe disabilities– we’ve observed that artfully designed opportunities that allow children who experience and navigate the world differently from one another to learn as one community have a profound impact on their individual and collective wellbeing. Observing the social-emotional and academic gains that both children with and without disabilities make when artists apply their creative impulses and gifts to teaching in inclusive settings greatly contributed to P.S. ARTS’ current focus and investment in arts-based educator training. Through this research, we hope to better define the role that the arts and artists have in building inclusive, high-performing schools. Moreover, we hope our work, as is stated in the California Arts Council’s description of the Research in the Arts grant, “will contribute to a growing body of international scholarship about the profound impact that the arts have in many aspects of human experience, lead to the development of crucial tools for the field, and for the information of our legislators and other key decision-makers.”