As a child growing up in Melrose Park, art educator Brenda Latzke says she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t sitting on the floor with a pad of paper in her lap drawing.

Later, that love of art lined up with her interest in becoming an elementary education teacher. Post college, those interests became the conduit for working with adults and children with special needs while living, working and volunteering in special needs classrooms and hospital programming in England.

In 1988, to better reach those students, the art teacher earned a graduate degree to become an art therapist, as well.

Once stateside again, Latzke employed her skillsets via various jobs in the Chicago area, eventually earning an MEd in special education from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1991.

Since 2000, the Oak Park mom has been a fifth grade art and special education teacher at Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest, plus an art teacher for students with special needs at District 90’s Willard Elementary School.

On a recent Sunday, with her dog Oliver nearby, Latzke did a self-portrait for the Journal. 

How does doing art benefit children with special needs?

Art gives them a way where they can be open to expression at wherever they are at. Sometimes it may just be exploring the materials, which is more of a sensory thing, and other times it is getting whatever is on the inside of them, out, exploring their emotions.

What is your approach? 

The most important thing is giving choices, making them feel like they are more in charge, that we are not making decisions for them. Depending on their level, some are more able to express their emotions in their art work. For others, it is more of a basic level of sensory exploration.

What’s fun to do with anyone? 

(In smaller groups) I will bring in a bucket of snow, and give them the pans of snow and they paint it with a very diluted tempera paint, or water color, so it looks like a tie-dyed…beautiful, snow cone. 

Any advice?

Parents should provide for the opportunity for the art materials to be there for their child to use. Certainly, having basic supplies such as crayons, Cray-Pas, tempera paints, water colors, play dough, rollers, adaptive cutting tools, paper…and to a point, don’t be afraid of them making a mess. Cray-Pas are an oil based crayon, with a richer pigment, so you don’t have to press as hard to create something rich and strong.

What else?

Give them time. Over time, what they do can be significant. Just something as simple as a student making a mark on a piece of paper can seem like a small thing to the regular person on the street. But for a student who has no independent action like that, something as small as making a mark can be significant. Doing art can be a really important way for them to communicate.

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....