Learning about Compensatory Support: Adapted Art Tools for poor fine motor control

EDER 679.08 Adaptive Technologies in Education. Toolkit Part A: Compensatory Support Introduction.

Glass, Meyer & Rose (2013) suggest “[…] including arts options, especially informed by UDL practices, can provide a rich range of unique and complex content, processes, and thinking habits for valuing, understanding, and making meaning of the world” (p. 116).

Type of Compensatory Support: Adapted art tools that remove or reduce the barrier caused by poor fine motor control

When to remediate versus compensate?

Dave Edyburn (2002) arguesAt some point in the educational process, we must recognize the need for compensatory approaches” (p. 2). He further asks “How much failure data is needed to trigger a decision to de-emphasize remediation approaches and activate the use of compensatory approaches that enhance a child’s functional performance?” (p. 2). A great question, especially when considering the child’s perspective for how many times must a child attempt to do any task, in a certain method, when the method is clearly failing? Some fine motors skills are developed as a child grows and with practice. Yet, despite remediation, some learners may struggle with the process of forming shapes and with the entire cognitive production of holding a writing tool (Broun, 2009). A person may not be able physically improve with remediation due to a learning disability or a permanent injury for example. Broun (2009) advises “Teachers must exercise caution in trying to elicit a skill that may never reach a level of proficiency sufficient to enable students to demonstrate what they know or think in an efficient and fluid manner” (p. 16).

If we are following the guides of Differentiated Instruction supporting diversity (Tomlinson, & McTighe, 2006), educators should encourage a variety of methods to represent knowledge and understandings. Further, if we are fostering principles for Universal Designs for Learning (CAST, 2014; Rose & Meyer, 2002) educators should encourage individual ways of expressing understandings and also individual use of materials. Glass, Meyer & Rose (2013) argue “arts educators will have to be more responsive to individual differences by recognizing the variation in difficulties that their students will have and addressing them in productive ways” (p. 104). Thus, by providing improved access to the visual arts through adapted art tools, educators can help support learners with poor fine motor control by embedding adapted art tools within creating. Who we include or do not include in any educational setting, sends a clear message on who is valued within a school and the Fine Arts are no exception.

General Overview of Adapted Art Tools as Compensatory Support

Goal: to support the authentic participation of learners with low fine motor control in an art setting.

Barrier: a Fine Motor or physical disability preventing a person from fully participating in an art activity.

A video showing an example of adapted art tools for fine motor use. BridgeSchooler. (2009, Oct 22). Bridge School News Network 10/22/09 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6HW5CXaoiU

Creating visual art and design projects is a complex process involving the physical mechanics of hand control and the cognitive component of organizing, creating and composing images with color, shapes, lines, textures and other materials. Further, creating is a process which serves different purposes based on the context and the author’s intent and can form as a method of communication between people.

Similar to the concept of writing on paper, creating or forming marks on a surface in art (cutting with scissors, gluing, pencil crayon coloring, painting, sculpting clay etc.) often requires a fine motor control of an art tool such as a pencil, paintbrush, clay carving tool, scissors and other hand held devices. Similar to printing or handwriting, thinking too much about the process of creating combined with the physical aspect of attempting to create intended mark takes the energy away from the purpose or goal (Newton, Dell & Petroff, 2012). Some people simply do not have a physical capability to hold a tool to create art the way they would like. Adapted art tools can provide support for learners with poor fine motor control. There are a few specifically adapted art technologies available on the market designed to assist in a variety of ways and there are many creative adaptive ways to modify current tools for a person with a fine motor disability. Which is the best? This depends on the specific needs of each individual, and the tasks they wish to be able to perform independently.

Who would benefit from an adapted art tool?

  • One with fine motor disabilities (for example hypotonia or apraxia)
  • One with a physical disability preventing fine motor hand use
  • One with developmental coordination disorder
  • One with motor dsygraphia or spatial dysgraphia
  • One developing fine motor skills with/without conjunction with Occupational Therapy
  • One who has lost the ability of fine motor skills as the result of a stroke, brain injury or influencing illness
  • One with poor balance and coordination
  • One with a vision impairment
  • One who may not have identified learning disabilities
  • One with unsteady reaching & holding
  • One who enjoys tactile or “hands on” learning experiences
  • One who enjoys visual learning (representation)
  • One who prefers expressing their learning visually
  • One who wants to try/experiment with different methods of expression
  • One who has poor physical strength due to an injury or illness
  • One with oral challenges

How might an adaptive art tool support learning? 

  • Encourages actively participating within peer projects which increases a sense of belonging.
  • Fosters a sense of interconnectedness with others. Art is often created for “an audience”. Thus fostering, what Wolf (1998) calls an exchange & response. Art can often open dialogue between peers, community and home which increases a sharing of perspectives (Greene, 2003; Jensen, 2003; Glass, Meyer & Rose, 2013).
  • Helps a learner create a “product” representing the conceptual structure of knowledge (Alberta Regional Consortia, 2014; Jensen, 2003) as part of UDL and DI learning strategies.
  • Encourages imagination & exploration of ideas through materials (play & purpose).
  • Fosters cross-curricular integration if a learner has access to multiple means of representing their ideas (CAST, 2014) in any subject and fosters increased understanding in other domains (Fiske, 1999). For example, a learner can create a painting to express their feelings and ideas regarding studying the Holocaust in Social Studies (Wolf, 2008).
  • Promotes learner choice (Mason, Steedly & Thorman, 2008; Wolf, 2008). “There are not so many “right” answers as there are multiple, effective, powerful, or stunning ones. Think of all the ways there are to create a portrait […] But to realize a powerful solution or new version means making choices about what to say and how to say it.” (Wolf, 2008, p.7).
  • Inspires a democratic learning environment where students are active participants in personal expression, choice and voice (Mason, Steedly & Thorman, 2008).
  • Increases engagement when a learner can fully or more directly participate in an inclusive environment and activities (CAST, 2014; Rose & Meyer, 2002).
  • Supports self-expression for learners with oral challenges.
  • Fosters self-identity & empowerment (Taylor, 2006).
  • Promotes independence as students can paint/draw/cut/create without always relying solely on another person.
  • Increases the visual detail/intent/communication of a desired expressed art.
  • Encourages the individual style of a learner by removing/limiting a barrier and focusing on the message or intent of the art.
  • Creates an equal learning opportunity for students requiring fine motor support.
  • Supports an inclusive learning environment by promoting a sharing of experiences and perspectives. By truly listening to a child’s voice we can better understand their perspective. Children should be provided ample opportunity and multiple ways to share their identity, thoughts and feelings. The arts lend themselves in partnership and promote individualism and the community group.
  • Builds upon a learner’s current abilities, especially if a learner enjoys visual arts, thus fostering UDL’s principle of engagement increasing motivation, persistence and emotional self-regulation. Intrinsic motivation increases creativity (Jensen, 2003; Pink, 2009).

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Learning Spaces Matter

Where do you choose to do “work” outside of your place of work or school building? I sit feet up on my couch, located beside a gas fireplace, with a warm blanket wrapped around me and usually a coffee nestled beside my laptop. Second choice for locale I would be at a Good Earth Cafe table (preferable a tall table with a stool) and a cup of Cinnamon Dolce Latte beside my laptop. If I’m not comfortable, I find it difficult to focus.

Space matters.

For my fourth toolkit challenge for my “Universal Design for Learning” Grad course, I wanted to better understand the concept of the Physical Learning Space through a Universal Design for Learning lens. The Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) argues we need to provide Multiple Means of Representation, Multiple Means of Expression and Multiple Means of Engagement to better meet the diverse needs of learners. Considering CAST’s guiding principles, I began pondering how location and the physical environment could help foster all three elements? While Universal Design applies to the physicality of an environment design being accessible and flexible for all, I want to specifically consider possibilities of the physical learning space through a UDL lens. I decided to form questions to ask when assessing a learning space.

Traditional School layout

 Would you want to sit in the above room for 8 hours straight?

The Third Teacher – case study by Steelcase. A video illustrating flexibility of learning spaces.

Space & Multiple Means of Representation.

CAST (2014) argues learners differ in the ways they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. Beyond the concept of “decoration” of a classroom, the idea of multiple means of representation inherently connects with the physical surroundings and availability of tools to provide multiple means of representation. Providing options and accessibility within the physical environment can help aid in providing multiple ways of accessing and understanding.

Is information communicated or presented in multiple ways? SmartBoards or Screens, are they located so anyone in the room can see? Do learners get a chance to use a Smartboard or is it only used for teacher directed lessons? Can you zoom in on the text or images or provide subtitles for ELL? Are schedules posted so learners can see plans for the day? Are learning goals or learner questions visible? Are there speakers to increase clarity or sound levels? Are personal devices encouraged?

Is uniqueness valued, shared and celebrated in representation?

Who we include or do not include on our walls matters and sends out a message on who is truly valued within the building. Are resources from a variety of cultures and backgrounds being used? Are images and perspectives from of a variety of cultures illustrating a mosaic of human differences prominently used? Is diversity shared on the walls? In the hallways? Online? Are learners with special needs also included in visible learning or only displayed within a resource room?

Digital Connection

An element to support learner individual pace is providing access to learning at any time, anyplace and any pace. By providing an online digital access point for learning, we open up the possibilities for learners to learn at their own pace, integrate personalized technology and provide them with multiple representations.

Space & Multiple Means of Action & Expression

CAST (2014) states “it is important to provide alternative media for expression”. Further “such alternatives reduce media-specific barriers to expression among learners with a variety of special needs, but also increases the opportunities for all learners to develop a wider range of expression in a media-rich world.”

Is there a variety of “stuff” & “things” to create with? I have been blessed to teach Humanities out of an Art Classroom and therefore had a great supply of paper, clay tools, paints, rulers, glue, scissors and recycled items readily available at any moment. Because I taught Art Metal I also had saws, a drill press, pliers etc. Essentially, a mini-maker space at my learners finger tips. The ability to locate tools quickly or “on the fly” helps with differentiation.

Flexibility of Space

Considering space…how quickly can you move furniture around to create alternative learning space? Is there an area to bring an entire group together? Is there a quiet area to record? How do the teachers collaborate to help create experiences as needed based on learners needs? Is the school itself flexible? Is an Art Room open to those who need to make a mess? Is the shop room open for someone to use a spray booth? With the shift from Libraries to Learning Commons this will help learners gain better access to a myriad of tools.

This video shows how simply changing the design of a chair can provide multiple means of expression & action

Space & Multiple Means of Engagement

CAST argues “there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential.” One of the most important things a teacher can do is to create a safe space for learners. By focusing on how the physical environment can engage learners, as Carol Ann Tomlinson (2003) states “the classroom environment includes both physical and affective attributes that individually and cumulatively establish the tone or atmosphere in which teaching and learning will take place.” Suggesting the classroom will often be the first messenger of how learning will be in this place.

In fostering learner engagement an educator needs to consider learners’ interests. Does the learning space have a warm ambiance? Do learners have choices to collaborate or work independently? Thus fostering autonomy in learner choice. Are there visible schedules or plans so a learner who needs structure feels secure? Are there areas for quiet concentration and also areas for social interaction? Do the learners have a say in their classroom design?

What does an educator do if limited by physical space design?

Create. Money is always a resource we wish we had more of…so instead of giving up one has to be creative with what one has. I’ve taught in a windowless room for years so we painted our own windows on the walls. This extended into painting cupboards and tables to add learner identity of the space. I brought in a lamp and some cloth to soften the room.

Bargain and ask the community. I went to a local furniture store and bargained for a couch. I explained it was for educational purposes in a school and wanted to help out. Why not ask parents if they have any items willing to donate?

Reach out to peers! I was told my cool green shag carpet was a fire hazard, so I asked a Phy.Ed teacher if I could borrow some gym mats when they weren’t in use. Done! I had comfy mats for kids to lay on or sit and the mats were easy to move around the room as needed.

Partner with Colleagues. As teachers, collaborating to share space is key. Learners should be able to flow from room to room in a building when needed, not always at scheduled bell times. If a learner needs to perhaps drill a hole in a piece of wood for a project would it not be fantastic if the Shop teacher was open to supervising this child, essentially opening up the space to everyone? Agreeing that there are no “territorial” spaces but an entire school learning environment? 


In summary, a major key of UDL is the concept of flexibility, of being able to manipulate variables to achieve high performance for all learners. Which is why Universal Design for Learning extends into the physical environment and deserves thoughtful implementation. In a recent study of physical space impact upon academic results, Christopher Brooks (2010) found “holding all factors excepting the learning spaces constant, students taking the course in a technologically enhanced environment conducive to active learning techniques outperformed their peers who were taking the same course in a more traditional classroom setting.”

Does the learning environment imply a teacher centred focus…or hopefully a learner centred space? Can you walk in and tell exactly where the teacher “runs the show”, or do you walk in and find it is impossible to tell who is teaching and who is learning?

Check out these Resources on Learning Spaces

Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. (July 2012).The Third Teacher: Designing the Learning Environment for Mathematics and Literacy, K to 8. Capacity Building Series.Special Edition #27. Ontario, Canada : Student Achievement Division.

K-12 Blueprint

Bill, David. Example of a Redesigned Classroom. 8 Tips and Tricks to Redesign Your Classroom. Edutopia.

Doorley, Scott & Witthoft, Scott. Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration.

Persaud, Ramona. (2014). Why Learning Space Matters. Edutopia.

Brown, Malcolm B., Lippincott, Joan K. (2003). Learning Spaces: More than Meets the Eye. Educause Quarterly.


CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA.

CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression.Wakefield, MA.

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (2003). Teacher Response to Student Needs: Rationale to Practice. Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Image of Classroom from freeimages.com

Living a Responsive Curriculum

My son Jacklayinginthegrass and I set off on one of our many adventure walks, taking advantage of the quickly diminishing summer days. Suddenly, Jack veered from the footpath, ran to a patch of lush green grass, and laid down with a giant grin. He yelled, “momma, come lay on the grass with me!” I couldn’t help but laugh with the energy of his spontaneity and quickly joined him. I looked up at the perfectly blue October sky, felt the soft grass tickle my skin and I smiled at the simplicity of our shared moment. My son is only three and yet emits such a wonderful wisdom on the art of enjoying life, of feeling life and of living every moment.

When approaching my second toolkit challenge, for my “Designing Inclusive Learning Environments” grad class, I felt it was necessary to discuss the concept of supporting an inclusive learning environment through a responsive curriculum. I wrote a post recently titled Learning to “leave” the classroom : Differentiating School Programming, discussing how I see Education should provide students with multiple pathways to learn and ultimately choice in their learning continuum. And in order to support multiple learning pathways, teachers need to connect curriculum in a responsive way to the students.

Why a responsive curriculum?

If I acknowledge and firmly believe that every student who enters a classroom arrives with their own past experiences, knowledge about the world, interests and curiosities, and varying areas of understanding, in order to best differentiate for them I need to facilitate the curriculum to meet their individual learning needs. Doing so honours each student as an individual human being. Not trying to fit human beings into a curriculum. I am teaching students before me today. Not students from last year, five years ago, or students in the future. So then the challenge lies in how do I create a Responsive Curriculum for my students?

Imagine going to see a physician for a leg pain, and then arriving and the doctor already has a prescription in hand before even knowing asking you about your experience in the first place. How often have I planned a Unit, or a lesson plan or thought I had a great inquiry challenge for my students, but had first started with looking at the curriculum. Then later wondered why the students just weren’t hooked? I assumed I should start with the curriculum and then adapt it to meet my learners. Teachers are here to teach the curriculum, right? However, I had it backwards. Instead, I should be asking: how do I help foster a learning experience where the students inform the choices that develop the curriculum of the year?

Because ultimately I need to honor the learner and where they currently are in life’s continuum.

So when does the curriculum come into play? 

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