Creativity and Special Needs Learners

Creativity and Special Needs Learners

Education November 27, 2017 / By Joanne Foster, EdD
Creativity and Special Needs Learners

Are there specific creativity-related challenges that pertain to special needs learners? What should parents and teachers pay attention to? Here are some important considerations, and five targeted tips.

Special education is a vast topic. There are millions of children and teens who benefit from support services and provisions. (And countless who don’t have access to such. However, that’s the potentially contentious stuff of another article, for another day). For now, let’s briefly consider the nature of exceptionality across the spectrum of learners—and then think carefully about how special needs can have a bearing upon a child’s desire to be creative, and look at five ways in which parents and teachers can encourage creative expression.

A Bit about Special Needs Learners

Each individual has areas of strength and weakness, and it’s incumbent upon the adults who live and work with children to strive toward supporting all the dimensions of their well-being. This includes their social and emotional health, cognitive growth, moral and character development, and more.

With that in mind, a person’s creativity is a vital part of what makes that person unique. Creativity helps children solve problems and overcome challenges. It fosters resolve, inquiry, new perspectives, independence, positivity, confidence, and ingenuity. Thus it’s important to nurture creativity. Yet sometimes that doesn’t happen.

Certainly parents and teachers are right to focus on academics, including remediation, accelerated learning opportunities, or other special education programming modifications or accommodations, as required. All that can and should occur—while also paying attention to children’s creative potential.

As with every kind of learning, in any domain, special learning needs can fluctuate and change over time. Supports will vary, depending on the nature of the individual’s exceptionality and the recommendations set forth by a child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). (For more on this, and for resources pertaining to special education, see the “Additional Resources” section at the end of this article.) Regardless of which placement option or service provision is being implemented at any particular time, there is inevitably some way to incorporate opportunities to trigger a child’s imagination and creativity.

Special Needs Learners and Aspects of Creativity

 A child who is visually impaired writes a stirring poem, while another who is dyslexic composes a beautiful melody. A teenager who has a learning disability shares futuristic ideas during a discussion. A young child with autism creates a striking collage comprised of photographs. A student who is intellectually advanced draws an original web-design that is both insightful and intricate. Each of these special needs learners is stretching in different ways by engaging the mind, extending knowledge, and tapping creativity. It’s vital that they—and others – be encouraged to do so, even if it’s challenging. Creativity is a choice. It is something that people choose to do.

Adults have to help children make the right kinds of choices. That is, to take a chance, step outside of comfort zones, try new approaches, test limits… This can be difficult for kids who are struggling in various ways. Some may have trouble starting a creative activity, whereas others may find it hard to sustain momentum and see it through to completion. Even the most academically advanced learners sometimes have trouble identifying what makes them curious or enthused, or conversely, hesitant and less likely to be creative. Kids may need extra encouragement, or assistance in the form of help, reinforcement, or guidance so as to be able to maximize their strengths, talents, interests, energy, effort, and coping mechanisms.

Helpful Tips for Nurturing Creativity

Patience, choice, reassurance—these are fundamental for encouraging children’s creative expression. So is honoring the validity of children’s thoughts and feelings, without being judgmental. What else matters? Here are five suggestions for parents and teachers of special needs learners.

1. Help children tap networks of support. Remember that kids’ needs, desires, concerns, and interests are always changing, as are family and school situations. Friends, family members, teachers, coaches, and others can offer incentive, support, and guidance. Children who perceive the adults (and others) in their lives as being caring, respectful, available, and willing to help, are more motivated to exercise their creativity.
2. Consider what will inspire children, and spark the imagination. Playfulness, language stimulation, multi-sensory experiences, and ample opportunities for unstructured play and discovery, alone and with others, can help get creative juices flowing. Kids benefit from exploring a range of different activities, such as music, art, puzzles, exercise, dance, and discovery walks. Use of technology (for example, assistive, or for broader resource access) can also be beneficial.
3. Help kids stay balanced. Ensure that children have a healthy mix of learning opportunities, physical exercise, sleep, reflection, social activities, and family time. Also, meditation, solitude, and quiet time—for mind wandering, innovation, and exploration at a leisurely pace. Tranquility can occur both indoors and outdoors. Adherence to routines can also be calming. And, all of these experiences can stimulate creativity. 
4. Encourage children to have faith in their own abilities. Kids can experience frustration both in their weaker and stronger subject areas. Help children realize and accept their limitations, and challenge their own thinking, including misconceptions (about self, capabilities, tasks). Learning about self-talk can also be advantageous. For example, working through the steps of a task, and recognizing and imagining positive outcomes, such as saying to oneself, “I will try!” and “I’m making progress!” Remember, too, that although creativity may seem challenging, it can actually be a means of overcoming challenge.
5. Emphasize optimism. A fresh outlook can be empowering, and it can also bolster self-confidence. Celebrate the small steps and accomplishments. It’s about attitude. Kids can start small, and aspire to change hesitancy, reluctance, or negative points of view—if they want to. It also helps to ensure that IEP goals are effectively aligned with the child’s needs. When an educational program is well suited, such that a child is progressing and feels positive about learning, it sets the stage for inquiry, meaningful connections, a sense of purpose, and creative expression.

Scientists and researchers continue to learn about child development, and the intricacies of the brain. As more and more evidence comes to light about neural plasticity—the capacity for the brain to change over time—the greater the opportunity for strengths to develop. With that in mind, here is a final thought:

“Give children a strong appreciation for curiosity, exploration, and persistence. This is the foundation upon which intelligence, creativity, success, and fulfillment are built.”

(Beyond Intelligence, p. 240)

Additional Resources

Dr. Joanne Foster has a Master’s degree in Special Education and Adaptive Instruction, and a Doctoral degree in Human Development and Applied Psychology. She is an award-winning author who writes about intelligence, creativity, and productivity. In Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids (co-written by Dona Matthews) readers will find lots of helpful strategies, including a Creativity Quiz for parents (p. 47), checklists, and many links and references leading to a wide range of resource material. Visit Dr. Foster’s website at to find out about her other books (most recently, Not Now, Maybe Later, and Bust Your BUTS, published by Great Potential Press), and check out her column “Fostering Kids’ Success” at

Special learning needs can occur across one or more domains. For instance, these needs may pertain to visual, auditory, physical or cognitive capacities. And the range of possible supports is vast, and may include technological assistance; more suitably targeted or better differentiated programming; increased levels of instruction or challenges; consultations (with psychologists, pediatric nurses, therapists, speech-language pathologists, or other trained professionals); full or part-time special education classes; and so on. For more information on support services, see the special education resources portals in your district.By way of example, in Ontario, Canada the Ministry of Education’s site is a thorough and go-to online venue for learning about standards, guidelines, planning protocols, relevant documents, advocacy organizations, questions and answers, and more.

Other information sources include different organizations (such as Canada’s “Our Kids”) which publish material designed to help parents navigate various kinds of learning paths. (See How do special needs schools support students? and What makes for the best special needs school?

For Marilyn Price-Mitchell’s article on ways to ignite children’s self-discovery and growth, see Encouraging Words for Kids That Ignite Self-Discovery and Growth  And, for information on creativity and other core aspects of optimal child development, check out her website

See Scott Barry Kaufman’s blog at for excellent resource material on creativity.

Leah Davies offers Encouraging Thoughts for Children, Teens, and Adults, accessible online at Encouraging Thoughts.

See also Dan Peters’ article Children with Special Needs Need Special Parents. 

In Three Ways to Help Your Special Needs Child Feel Safe and Loved, Mona Delahooke provides helpful advice for parents. 

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