United Arts Council

The Transformative Power of the Arts: Nurturing the Growth of Students with Special Needs

The Transformative Power of the Arts: Nurturing the Growth of Students with Special Needs


Every student has unique strengths and deserves to have an environment that enables them to flourish. For students with special cognitive needs, the arts offer a remarkable pathway to self-expression, personal growth, and academic success.

Cognitive diversity often means that traditional teaching methods may not resonate with every student. The arts engage multiple senses, making them an ideal platform for learning. Whether through visual arts, music, dance, or theater, students can explore concepts and ideas in ways that align with their cognitive strengths.

Last February, United Arts collaborated with the Wake County Public School System’s Bridges Program, supporting K-5 students with academic, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Through our Artists in Schools program, United Arts provided a free week-long arts residency for the school led by teaching artist Greg Whitt from Drum for Change.

Bridges Program Director Heather Boling expressed delight at the high engagement from students and staff during the residency. She said they witnessed fewer discipline issues and loved that parents and community members attended the recital—some visiting the campus for the first time. Remarkably, students with autism and extreme behavioral health needs, who often struggle to fully participate in the regular school day, independently danced and performed during drum circles. It was a beautiful display of self-expression and community participation.

Teaching artist Greg Whitt had this to say, “There were so many tiny, magical triumphs among this group this morning that were beautiful to witness. Their families turned out en masse, the school system central office showed up, and the arts council brought the program coordinator, vice-president, president and a board member! The community showed up for these kids and these kids showed up for the community.”

When students see their artwork displayed, hear their music performed, or receive applause for their dance, they develop a sense of accomplishment that extends to other areas of their lives. Engaging in the arts nurtures not only critical skills like problem-solving, but students also learn valuable social skills such as teamwork, communication, and empathy.

The arts offer a transformative opportunity for students with special cognitive needs to thrive academically, emotionally, and socially. By recognizing and harnessing their unique abilities, we can create inclusive educational environments where every student has the chance to shine.

(Photos are from the recital: Bottom right (l-r) is United Arts VP, Ragen Carlile, United Arts Board Member, Heather Gray, and United Arts President, Jennifer McEwen)



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