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Why Generalist K-12 Teachers Should Use the Arts to Support Students with Exceptionalities in Mainstream Schools (even if they don’t consider themselves to be artistically inclined)

“Miss, I’m not feeling focused or ready to learn at the moment. Can I take five, play ‘Smoke on the Water’ on the guitar, and then get back to my math questions?” It is lesson four on a Thursday at a Special Needs Academy in England. This eleven-year-old student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) sits at a desk, trying his best to remain calm. “Please?” he asked. “Of course,” the teacher replied. 

At the beginning of the school year, the newly qualified grade six (generalist) teacher created an instrument corner in the classroom, realizing that one student had an incredible ability to teach himself how to play the guitar and piano. The instrument corner in the grade six classroom included two acoustic guitars, three ukuleles, an electric guitar, an electronic drum kit, two djembe drums, two bongo-drums, a Bodhrán drum, an electronic keyboard and two xylophones. These grade six students were formally diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). All of the students engaged with the arts as a tool for emotional regulation throughout the school year. One might not suspect that eight weeks prior rather than politely requesting to play the guitar, the student with ASD and PDA would have more likely ripped up his math worksheet, put it into his mouth, chewed on it, and repeatedly banged his head on a wall for an hour. 

Research suggests that motivation and self-determination are critical for education (O’Brien, 2018). The author’s firsthand experience described in the vignette above will serve to provide the context where theory and practice meet. The belief that humans are inherently curious and social beings is widely recognized, meaning that learning is an internally motivated activity (Ryan & Deci, 2009). Ironically, schools under-serve these aspects of human nature, replacing them with “strategies of external control, monitoring, evaluation, and artificial rewards to foster learning” (Ryan & Deci, 2009, p. 171). Students with exceptionalities, and their generalist teachers, are challenged by this rigorous system which should according to policy be promoting inclusivity and supporting individual learning needs. Across Canada, special education students are integrated within mainstream classrooms and, in Ontario, these pupils make up 12.5% of all students (over 260,000 children) (RI, 2000). Many exceptionalities are not immediately visible or are concealed by the identified individual for personal or social reasons (Matheson & Robinson, 2019). These “hidden exceptionalities” include learning disabilities (LDs), emotional and behavioural exceptionalities, mild intellectual disabilities, and level-1 Autism Spectrum Disorder (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013; Matheson & Robinson, 2019).

The premise of inclusive education is that all students have a right to equal education and that teachers will provide support to all students through their effective teaching practices (Thomas et al., 1998). A barrier to the adoption of truly inclusive education involves teachers’ personal expectations of effectiveness when working with students with exceptionalities (Palmer, 2006). Due to differences in cognition, learning, attention, behaviour, movement, vision, and communication, many educators may find challenges meeting their students’ many needs (Alphonso, 2019). Arts education can support children with exceptionalities; therefore, it is necessary to evaluate how the arts increase student motivation by providing feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. However, teacher self-efficacy is an equally important factor to consider when advocating for educators to use the arts to increase student motivation; it is vital that teachers feel well-prepared to support all students and use the arts.

Key Terminology

  • Self-efficacy is defined as “the beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required” to produce the desired outcome” (Bandura, 1997, p. 2). It is one of the greatest sources of motivation and momentum for teachers and students alike. “What a teacher believes about their capability affects how they undertake certain teaching tasks” (Pendergast et al., 2011, p. 47). When teachers have higher self-efficacy, they also set higher goals for themselves (Bandura, 2015), which may lead to intrinsic motivation, a greater sense of autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2009) and may result in positive teaching practices that have the ability to benefit student achievement and educational outcomes.
  • Context-specific self-efficacy in the arts: Teachers who instruct the primary years (grades K to 3) are often generalist teachers rather than specialist arts teachers (Morris et al., 2017). If teachers at this level have few past experiences with the arts (Morris et al., 2017) and receive limited art training in teacher’s colleges, this may lead to low “context-specific self-efficacy” (Bandura, 2015; Garvis, 2008). A teacher’s perceived lack of mastery in the arts could result in a negative feedback loop, which may spill over and affect the interpersonal, intrapersonal, critical thinking, and motor skills of the teachers themselves, their teaching practices and ultimately, their students (Morris & Lummis, 2014). Teachers, including those in the preservice phase, may feel challenged or anxious about teaching arts education due to a lack of experience, time, resources, and knowledge of the curriculum to plan and teach it (Garvis, 2008; Russell-Bowie, 2012). Building context-specific teacher self-efficacy in the arts is vital so that teachers are more willing to leverage the arts to support students with exceptionalities. This can occur both at the preservice phase or in-service phase.
  • The arts include dance, drama, music, visual art (drawing, painting, sculpting) and media art (digital art, photography, film). A generalist teacher’s self-efficacy related to the arts can improve if the teacher knows how to integrate the arts as a tool for students, rather than teach toward skill mastery.
  • Self-determination theory is an approach to understanding the quality of motivation a person has towards a particular behaviour and whether it is aligned with a sense of self (Evans, 2015). Self-determination theory assumes that every individual develops by actively engaging with their external environment and more deeply with the internal experiences that drive their behaviour.
  • Autonomy is independence achieved through feelings of choice, will, and independence (Ryan & Deci 2002).
  • Competence is the ability to perform tasks successfully. It relates to one’s motivation to be skilled, able, and interactive in the external environment (Evans, 2015). The need for competence at school motivates students to achieve (Evans, 2015). In a voluntary activity like visual art, music, dance, drama, or media art, these students may have increased feelings of competence (Evans, 2015). Due to the arts’ subjectivity, special education students may feel less pressure to master the art (Evans, 2015). Additionally, positive feedback may increase their feelings of competence (Vallerand & Reid, 1984). Research suggests autonomy-supportive teachers have more effective classroom management because special education students feel competent to engage autonomously in their learning (Benware & Deci, 1984; Grolnick & Ryan, 1987; Kage & Namiki, 1990; Ryan et al., 1990).
  • The Need for Relatedness arises because humans seek to feel connected with or attached to a role model (example: peer teacher). They will internalize their role model’s behaviour if they feel competent and autonomous in doing so (Ryan and Deci, 2009). Arts subjects can provide a social context that has the potential to fulfill the need for relatedness. Students engaging in arts must stretch their creativity, think innovatively, and be comfortable sharing their art. This vulnerability places all students, including those with exceptionalities, on a more equal playing field in terms of their cognitive abilities. This may enable a student with an exceptionality to fulfill their need for relatedness to a peer or to be perceived as someone with whom a peer would like to relate.
  • Internalization is the natural tendency to absorb practices and values in their environments.
“Using the Arts as a Classroom tool” Framework (Docrat, 2020)
“Using the Arts as a Classroom tool” Framework (Docrat, 2020)

The Theory Behind the Framework

Self-determination theory is a lens through which educators can recognize the value of using the arts as a pedagogical tool to support students with exceptionalities, particularly those in inclusive educational settings. Students with exceptionalities in this context include those with disabilities.

According to self-determination theory, teachers can increase student’s internal motivation to learn by building classroom contexts that allow students to feel (1) autonomous, (2) competent, and (3) related to others. When students feel safe, valued, and cared for at school, they have a greater desire to internalize from the social context they are a part of. The arts may provide an ideal way to achieve this. This is particularly valuable because of a concept known as transfer, whereby “learning in one context assists learning in a different context” (Ruppert, 2006).  The vignette below demonstrates this in action.

The grade six student with ASD and PDA left the classroom with a guitar, sat in the stairwell quietly strumming “Smoke on the Water” over and over. When he was ready, he returned to the classroom, placed the guitar in the instrument corner, sat back down at the desk and looked at his math worksheet. He raised his hand again to ask, “Miss, would you mind helping me?” She modelled the math question he was working on, and immediately he recognized his mistake. The student quickly finished his worksheet, handed it in, and even decided to help a peer. The student recognized the instruments’ self-regulation benefits and chose to use the guitar as his emotion-regulation tool without prompting from the teacher. 

Generalist K-12 teachers may find themselves with very little technical arts training or previous experience engaging in the arts. This may result in low context-specific self-efficacy and may prevent some generalist teachers from integrating the arts within the classroom. Challenging this notion is central to the proposed framework. Rather than perceiving the arts as a “mastery of a skill,” teachers and their students can reframe their perception of the arts as a classroom tool to improve the quality of motivation one has towards learning. 

Framework Explained

Central to the framework is the use of the arts as a classroom tool. This approach directly affects the feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in students with exceptionalities and their generalist teachers. When students with exceptionalities use the arts as a pedagogical tool, it can increase their intrinsic motivation at school as supported by self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2009).

Fortunately, the musically gifted student encouraged the teacher to create an instrument corner. The grade 6 teacher graduated from a Canadian B.Ed. Program. The teacher’s limited music pedagogy knowledge was acquired solely from the program’s primary-junior music preservice course. Since the course was one-term long and the teacher had very few experiences with music in her own schooling, she had low self-efficacy in music education. Therefore, the teacher felt that she was unable to provide direct instruction on the technical skills of playing the instruments. This resulted in an unusual approach to teaching music. By building in time for students to play instruments and without teaching them any musical skills or songs, their feelings of autonomy, competence, self-esteem, relatedness and motivation increased. The teacher did not anticipate this; however, the positive results created a positive feedback loop. The teacher’s self-efficacy towards teaching students with exceptionalities and utilizing the arts in her teaching practices increased. The teacher now guest lectures in teacher education courses on this topic and in her teaching practice at the elementary to junior levels, she promotes the arts as a self-regulation tool for students with and without exceptionalities to use. 

As described by the vignette above, preservice and in-service generalist teachers encouraging their students to use the arts as a classroom tool may find that they become more self-efficacious in using the arts in their teaching practices in teaching students with exceptionalities in inclusive educational environments. Additionally, using the arts as a tool rather than conceptualizing it to relate only to mastery of skill may increase the internal motivation of generalist teachers and their students. This internal motivation will reinforce teachers’ practices and contribute to their teaching self-efficacy in inclusive education settings.


The framework presented in this paper aligns with the fundamental premise of inclusive education that is equitable learning for all. Teachers without specialized arts knowledge or skills who seek to support students with exceptionalities creatively can apply this framework. Ultimately, if teachers are more self-efficacious in the arts, more students might be provided with this learning opportunity and thereby reap the benefits of motivation fostered through the arts (Ryan & Deci, 2009).

Practical Examples to Use the Arts as a Classroom Tool

Since the generalist Grade Six teacher did not provide any direct instruction on the technical skills of playing the instruments, she allocated transitionary time between lessons for students to select an instrument of their choice (if desired) and teach themselves and/or their peers how to play the instrument or just “jam.” The teacher noticed that the students were engaged, focused, and communicating with one another respectfully compared to during lessons. Over time, students became increasingly motivated to complete their work to build in time to play the instruments. Within a month, the students formed a class rock band called “Zombie Hill” by choice. They adopted and embraced new friendships through the band, collaborated on two albums, created digital album art and music videos. The students demonstrated a growth mindset by engaging with music in their band practice, which carried over to other subjects such as math and literacy. Most importantly, students learned strategies of resiliency and communication. 

1. Structured student-directed arts activities.

a. Create guidelines and/or boundaries that allow students to lead their own activities in a structured-space.

b. Example/Evidence: Research shows that allowing students to use instruments to “jam” during transitions between lessons is motivating because it fulfills these psychological needs and then allows a student to internalize more information in their social context, such as the classroom (Winsler et al., 2011).

2. Teachers should consider integrating the arts to give students a choice, ownership, and input in their learning activities (Evans, 2015).

a. Example/Evidence: For example, rigid classical music classes do not support autonomous behaviour. However, autonomous motivation is achievable if students are encouraged to be creative and innovative when making music.

b. Example/Evidence: Students with exceptionalities may excel at composing songs or improvising because they are autonomously motivated, and, therefore, the benefit from arts education would be deeper (Evans, 2015)

3. Avoid incentivizing students by using rewards, instead use the arts:

a. Example/Evidence: Deci and Ryan (1980) suggested that when teachers incentivize students to engage in learning by using rewards, intrinsic motivation decreases. Rewards cause students to feel a loss of autonomy, and students shift to behaving for external reasons, which are unlikely to be sustained after they receive the reward (Ryan & Deci, 2009). Tests, social pressure, negative feedback, punishment, and surveillance all decrease students’ feelings of autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2009). For students with exceptionalities, anxiety may increase under such conditions (Alphonso, 2019). Furthermore, such highly academic contexts encourage students to develop egos and create competition that may diminish students’ self-esteem and well-being (Nicholls, 1984). This may result in a student disengaging with school, and serious consequences can ensue, particularly for an already vulnerable group of special education students (Ryan et al., 1991). Children with complex behaviours may be the first to be identified as the problem if this occurs. Such a label influences parents and teachers in predetermining whether children with complex behaviours are likely to be contributing members of society (Alphonso, 2019). This supports a case for allowing students to form a band and create music as part of their school day. Ultimately, these situations eliminate the pressure to perform and allow a student to maintain intrinsic motivation to participate in authentic learning in all subject areas (Ryan & Deci, 2002).

4. Include arts activities, but ensure they are voluntary.

a. Due to the arts’ subjectivity, special education students may feel less pressure to master the art (Evans, 2015).

b. Example/Evidence: visual art, music, drama, media arts, dance may provide students with increased feelings of competence (Evans, 2015). Whether a student is artistic or not, their belief that they are competent or capable of competence allows them to be motivated (Evans, 2015). Students can dance to “Go-Noodle” or create a “Lip Sync.” They may like to write and direct their own play.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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Yaara Docrat
Yaara is an Ontario Qualified Teacher and Master of Education Candidate at Queen’s University. Her research interests include self-regulation, the arts, and students with exceptionalities. Her first full-time contract teaching Grade 6 at a Special Needs Academy in the U.K. informed her current research study (Titled: Utilizing the Arts to Foster Emotional-Self-Regulation for Junior-Intermediate (Grade 4 to 8) Students with Attention and/or Hyperactivity Challenges: A Multiple Case Study). Yaara is currently looking to teach at an International School abroad having been a student of the community growing up.

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