In their art classrooms, Academy360 Lower and Upper School students experience academic and emotional growth by expressing themselves through the magic of creativity. Projects teach students valuable skills, and also inspire them to take pride in their accomplishments!

painting of a decorated Day of the Dead skull
Drawing from a joint Spanish language and art project on the Day of the Dead.

Art instruction is a well-established tool for helping individuals with special needs develop abstract thinking, sensory integration and regulation, emotion and self-expression, developmental growth, visual-spatial skills, and recreation and leisure skills. In addition to creative output, classroom routines help strengthen the core principles of paying attention, following instructions, and more.

At Academy360, we teach students to work collaboratively and strengthen the social skills they need for school and in the future. And, it’s a great way to have fun!

Art teacher, Liana Kelly, begins with the basics in the Lower School. The younger students may start off with tearing paper and then build up to using scissors. Mixing fun and functionality, they are learning about the process and the product at the same time.

“We have fun painting, but we’re also focusing on staying in the lines,” says Liana. “So we’re developing those fine motor skills.”

painted sneakers
Student shoe designs submitted for a Vans Sneakers contest.

For younger students, their favorite projects are more sensory and tactile experiences. One project involving Puffy Paint was extremely popular. They used a mixture of shaving cream, food dye, and glue to create colorful paintings of ice cream cones and cupcakes. The students not only enjoyed their creations, but the lesson also helped them become comfortable with unfamiliar textures – another example of blending good times with improving skills.

Students also enjoy use of the kiln located on the Verona campus, making ceramic pieces to take home or to sell at the annual A360 LS May Market. Working with clay is great for strengthening hands and encouraging imaginative expression.

Projects expand upon learned skills as students progress through the grades. For Upper School students who have become adept with the tools of the classroom, it’s less hand-over-hand assistance and more about expanding on what they’ve grown comfortable with.

replica of a Chilhuly glass scupture
Reproduction of a Chilhuly glass blow sculpture constructed from recycled water bottles

Everything in the classroom is tailored to students’ strengths. Liana encourages them all to pursue the mediums they enjoy best, but also to push their boundaries by trying different techniques. Painting, drawing, and using found materials to create objects are just some of the mediums they experiment with during the year. The most important goal is to help them try new things.

“We want them to not be afraid of creating, to not worry if their art is different from everyone else, or if they have to use special tools to accomplish projects,” says Liana. “The sense of accomplishment is amazing,” she adds.

Liana has come up with a great way to introduce students to different styles and aspects of art. Each semester she picks a popular artist whose style corroborates with a skill they’re studying. For a session on colors, she picked Piet Mondrian, who is known for big blocks of primary colors combined in interesting patterns.

A winter session on Impressionism featured Van Gogh and gave students the opportunity to create their own versions of the famous painting, “Starry Night.” Using a light box to trace the original painting – a great tool for students of all drawing proficiencies – they used their favorite mediums to “winterize” the picture by adding snow, snowmen, lights on trees, and even a menorah.

Student artwork is often on view throughout the schools in windows and on bulletin boards, but students also have opportunities to display their art in various exhibits. Last year our high school students were invited to submit pieces for a Legos art exhibit featuring well known Legos artists at the Morris Museum.

This year was particularly special for Academy360 students. Every year during Special Education Week, A360 participates in an art contest sponsored by ASAH, the not-for-profit organization that represents special needs private schools in New Jersey. This year’s theme was “Working Together to Build a Special Future for All!”. Students from the Lower and Upper Schools each picked a staff member who has helped or inspired them in some way.  Then they drew their staff members and wrote a sentence about how they have helped.

“The artwork this year was extraordinary,” says Liana, who was overjoyed to announce that an Upper School student took second place in the statewide contest. His work, and the work of fourteen other students was displayed in a pop-up exhibit at the Morris Museum in Morristown in early April.

For Liana, the important takeaways from the art program are multifold.

“For each kid it’s a little different. They’re getting the basic understanding of art knowledge – color families and other things they can apply in everyday life. It helps with social skills – we try to include peer manding and other collaborative projects,” she says.

“But most of all, art class is a safe space for kids to experiment, gain confidence in themselves and the work they can produce. We encourage them to be unique and unafraid of their creativity. That’s the best of all.”

drawings of teachers done by students
Some of the over 30 student-drawn portraits of A360 staff displayed at the Morris Museum.

 Lisa Crouch is the Assistant to the Public Information Officer.  Prior to working at Spectrum360, she worked at Yahoo, MSN, The Bergen Record, and other media outlets.  She has a BA in English Literature from Columbia University.  She is the proud aunt of an Academy360 Lower School student. In her off time, Lisa is a digital artist and writer.