Art for Students with Special Needs: Six Project Ideas

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Self-Portrait With A Mirror

Completing a self-portrait with a mirror can lead to heightened self-awareness for a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or any other special needs. The process should include making different facial expressions in a mirror as the child draws their self-portrait. An adult should be close by to assist the child as they think about the meaning and context of each expression (Henley, 1998). The final portrait will reflect the expression the child wishes to convey. It is helpful to have the child reflect on the process and also ask them about the final product.

Cartoon Panels

Cartoon panels can be educational for both the creator and adult observer. The depiction of past events can help the child uncover faulty thinking or actions, while demonstrating to adults the “logic” the child may have used causing misbehavior. This understanding and awareness can help both child and adult to brainstorm the options for corrected behavior in the future. The use of drawing to explore upsetting incidents in a cartoon panel shows the sequence of events and serves as a pictorial problem solving tool, which is effective for reviewing past incidents or anticipating those in the future to relieve anxiety (Henley, 1998).

Sand Tray Creations

This is a fluid art creation that reveals more and heals through process. It requires a shallow plastic bin, sand and a variety of figures or toys to be manipulated in the sand. The toys and objects should represent a large variety of environments so that meaning can emerge from the selection and placement of each piece. Objects representing people, animals, nature, play, work, birth, death, activity, transportation, shelter, religion and stages of life are examples of appropriate themes to incorporate. Each child’s special interests can be represented through additional figures and toys.

The child using the sand tray or bin should be given complete freedom to create a scene or scenario. The way in which the child composes the environment and how the figures interact is reflective of the child’s perspectives, thoughts, worries and interests. In order to maintain a form of permanency a picture may be taken at the end of the process to document the indicated stage. Picture taking at the end of each play or art session might reveal progression or growth.

Draw Yourself as an Animal

This activity is both playful and significant. The way in which children represent themselves shows their innermost feelings and personal regard. This activity should incorporate a final sharing stage in which the child describes the meaning behind both the animal and its features. Without this explanation, interpretation is not possible. Associated feelings and meanings are individualized; therefore a child may disclose important, personalized significance. The sharing stage also presents an opportunity for self-pride as both creator and object of display. This art project fuels imaginative thinking in combination with self-reflection.

Paper Plate Masks with Popsicle Stick Handles

The creation of paper plate masks is quite simple and practical for children. The resulting products present children with a mode of communication and an entertaining toy. Materials for the masks can be as simple as paper plates, popsicle sticks and crayons. A greater variety of supplies can be used including pipe cleaners, sequins, google eyes, macaroni, glitter, doll hair, paint, pom poms, foam pieces and so on. Children find random artifacts to be artistic gold, so any additional small objects can be includeed in their provided options. Children use the masks to express a variety of emotions and their use facilitates discussion. Having more than one emotion represented allows the child to differentiate feelings based on settings and experiences (Smith & Nylund, 1997). Children who have trouble verbally expressing themselves might use masks to be understood. Others might use them to intensify their outward expression of moods and feelings.

Parent and Child Squiggle Game

In this free association activity, the parent draws a squiggle and has the child construct a picture out of the squiggle. The child tells a story about their picture and then draws a squiggle for the parents to follow the same procedure (Selekman, 1997). This bonding experience provides information about the child’s inner world and creates an opportunity for meaningful conversation. The squiggle game art project also allows the child to see a more playful side to their parent, which opens the door for honest communication and interaction.


Henley, D. (1998). Art therapy in socialization program for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. American Journal of Art Therapy, 37 (1).

Selekman, M. D. (1997). Solution focused therapy with children: Harnessing family strengths for systemic change. New York: The Guilford Press.

Smith, C. & Nylund, D. (1997). Narrative therapies with children and adolescents. New York: The Guilford Press.