How to Create a Toolkit for Students With Special Needs

One aspect of teaching art I appreciate and enjoy is the inclusiveness of our subject area. Art education is a place where all students can express themselves. As a result, we’re often a favorite academic area for students with special needs, and rightfully so!

We all want to do our best for our students with special needs, but it can be tricky. Meeting the diverse needs of hundreds of students in a somewhat chaotic environment isn’t for the faint of heart. But it can be done! All it takes is a little forethought and preparation.

One efficient way to prepare for your students with special needs is to create an adapted artmaking toolkit.

A toolkit is a system of shelves and containers that hold things students with special needs and those who work with them may need. The system is located in your art room so you, your students, and the teaching aides can access it during class. It can include adaptive supplies, creature comforts, and essential tools for teaching aides. It is incredibly straightforward to set up. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Consider These 3 Aspects of Your Toolkit’s Setup


1. Location

Begin by choosing a central location for the toolkit. It should be accessible to both students and teaching aides and located somewhere in plain sight. By making the kit readily available, you communicate a sense of welcoming and empowerment to your kids with special needs.

2. Storage

Next, select a system for holding the elements of the kit. Metal cube shelving was the ideal solution in my art room because it was affordable, accessible, and the perfect size for my existing plastic bins. Figure out the simplest solution that will work for your space, and go for it!

3. Flexibility

Finally, be sure your system is flexible. Students and teaching aides will naturally access these containers in a way that best matches their work style. Some will enjoy the kinesthetic movement of “self-serving” at the shelves, while others will prefer to take individual bins to their tables to access the supplies inside.

Either way, label each bin with text and an image. Whether you use a photograph or clipart, having the visual will help emerging readers understand what is inside.

7 Bins to Consider Including in Your Toolkit

Of course, you will need to figure out what types of items to keep in your toolkit based on your students’ needs. Here are seven different ideas to get started.

1. Sensory Bin

sensory bin

At times, the art room can be overwhelming for students with special needs. Providing a sensory tub is a great way to offer them a break without having to leave the art room.

You might consider including:

  • Noise canceling headphones
  • Latex-free gloves (for use with clay or paper mache)
  • Fidgets (Silly Putty or other simple toys)
  • A small container of sand or dry rice

If you would like even more strategies for working with students with special needs in your art room, AOE has you covered. The courses Autism and Art and Reaching All Artists Through Differentiation are two great places to start. You’ll get the chance to engage in meaningful assignments such as creating an adaptive art tool for students, modifying an existing instructional tool, or updating an assessment to better meet your students’ needs. Don’t miss out!

2. Texture Bin

texture bin

Adding texture to an art project is a great way to capture the imagination of students with special needs who enjoy exploring the world in a tactile way.

You might consider including: 

  • Plastic texture plates (to color over or press into clay)
  • Books of fabric/upholstery samples (for collage)
  • Feathers, puffballs, and sequins
  • Sand (for pouring onto glue, to create a raised line)
  • Pipe cleaners or Wikki Stix (to trace a 2D line in a 3D way)

3. Sculpture Bin

Sometimes, the abstraction of a two-dimensional drawing can be a challenge for students with special needs. Consider offering a variety of sculptural materials to allow these students to manifest their ideas in three dimensions.

You might consider including: 

  • Play-Doh
  • Model Magic sample packs
  • Wood scraps
  • Building blocks

4. Drawing Bin

drawing bin

Each child’s way of making marks is uniquely beautiful. To ensure your students with special needs are successful, offer a variety of mark making tools that can help overcome basic challenges with grip and pressure.

You might consider including:

  • Jumbo crayons
  • Plastic grippers for pencils
  • Paint sticks
  • Markers
    Although these are a conventional supply, they are a good choice for those who struggle with applying pressure.

5. Painting Bin

painting bin

While the painting process is good for students who have challenges applying pressure, it can offer additional difficulties. Working with small brushes, using unsteady water cups, and other motor challenges come into play. Consider creating a tub with adaptive supplies to allow your students to experience the magic of this medium.

You might consider including:

  • Finger paints
  • Sponge daubers
  • Bulb brushes
  • Dog bowls or other wide based water containers to prevent spills.
    Do not use these with just a portion of your students; they are ideal for everyone!
  • Large palette watercolors
    These palettes make it easier to access a single color while developing fine motor control.

6. Cutting and Gluing Bin

cutting and gluing bin

Cutting and gluing is great fine motor practice for all students, including those with special needs. Sometimes, however, alternative materials are needed. Having a tub with multiple kinds of tools is a great idea.

You may consider including: 

  • Hand-over-hand scissors
  • Table mounted scissors
  • Jumbo glue sticks

7. Bin for Teaching Aides

bin for teaching aides

Finally, do not underestimate the positive impact a teaching aide can have on the art-making experience for your students with special needs. Your positive relationship with the school’s teaching aides is the most critical aspect of the toolkit. Prepare these professionals for success by providing a bin of their own.

You might consider including:

  • A teaching aide handbook or letter
    This is a great strategy for communicating your educational philosophy and their specific role within your classroom.
  • A list of potential environmental accommodations
    Teaching aides often know how their students learn best. Give them a list of environmental accommodations they could request to improve their student’s learning environment. You can download a copy below this list!
  • Creature comforts
    Think of how you respond when you feel appreciated and welcomed. Create that same feeling for your colleagues. Consider providing k-cups, chocolate, or other inexpensive tokens to demonstrate how much you value their presence, expertise, and continued help.

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As busy art teachers, it is crucial to weigh the time cost against the potential benefits of any classroom strategy we plan to implement. The initial set up of a special needs toolkit takes a bit of time, but the payoffs in independence and increased participation will last all school year long!

What else would you include in a toolkit for students with special needs?

What other adaptive supplies have you successfully used in your classroom?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Lindsey Moss

Lindsey Moss, an elementary school art educator, is AOEU’s Content Specialist and a former AOEU Writer. She enjoys art history and finding creative and fun solutions to educational challenges.

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