Adapting Art: OT Tips and Tools

Categories: Art & Fine Motor

Art can address so many important skills, from initiating and persisting at tasks to all the fine motor skills. There’s a reason why it is one of my favorite centers to work in especially within the early childhood classroom. While art can address many skills, not all of them come easily for our students. I thought it would be helpful to compile a list of quick and easy ways you can adapt or change the task or materials to facilitate the child’s independence within art activities.

Setting up the art activity

Provide a model of the activity.  When I am preparing the students for the activity, I always show them a model of the end product, even though I don’t tend to get super caught up in if they actually create something the looks exactly like mine. Now, if my goal is more of a free art and exploration type activity, I may not focus so much on showing the end product but I may demo some ideas of how students can use the materials.  I personally tend to lean more towards giving some guidance initially with visuals and models, and letting the students take it from there. I think that approach provides a good mix of structure as well as opportunity for creativity. 

Visual cues of steps: I always carry with me a simple ‘cut, color, glue, write name’ visual task strip with generic Boardmaker pictures. This works in a pinch for a lot of art activities. However, I more recently have really enjoyed using Choiceworks as a visual task strip. I can take real pictures of the materials and steps, load in a verbal cue if needed, and students can swipe the step into the all done column when they are finished. I have found some of my students have really become more independent using this more specific visual task list. The best thing is – there is limited prep required – no cutting, laminating – as long as I have my iPad we are good to go!

Check posture. If you are asking a child to complete a refined fine motor art task while seated, check to make sure they are in a good position if seated at the table.  I will explore this in more detail in future posts – but the most important aspect is to make sure a child’s feet are touching the floor.  If not, try putting something under their feet, like a footstool, or old phone books taped together.  This stability is really important!  

OK, now that you’ve thought about your setup – here are some specific tips for supporting students with skills we commonly use during art – cutting, coloring and gluing.  I have broken it down into ideas for changing the actual art task and ideas for changing art tools in order to facilitate student independence and success. 


Ways to change the task:

  • Try having the student just rip the paper or snip at the paper.  This is a good place to start with students who are learning the basics. 
  • Cutting straight lines is easier than cutting curved/angled lines or shapes – try simplifying the line/shape you are asking the child to cut.
  • Use thick, bold lines – gives the students something to really focus on.
  • Don’t put the shape in the middle of the paper – it’s harder to cut all the way in the middle. Put shape you want the child to cut towards the edge of the paper, it’s easier for them to manage.
  • Have the student cut part of the shape, you cut part – if a child struggles with endurance this is a good compromise.

Ways to change the tools:

  • Try adapted scissors. These are my favorite – loop and springloaded.  Loop scissors are for little hands and for students who are just working on those strengthening their hand muscles to squeeze scissors.  We aren’t even worrying about the finger placement yet. Springloaded scissors are the next step.  A student is working on the finger placement, but these scissors help with the opening and closing mechanism to make it easier. When a student masters that, you can turn off the spring and they can be used like regular scissors.
  • Try thicker paper. Thin paper is really flimsy and hard to cut. Thick paper gives more stability when students are trying to cut.  Think construction paper or card stock instead of computer paper.  


Ways to change the task:

  • Model the back and forth motion of coloring.  I find it helps my students slow down and focus on the movement instead of scribbling.
  • Color in different positions.  Try taping paper up on the wall, the easel, or even under the table!  I have found coloring to be one of the more challenging skills to teach students – so I try to make it fun by switching it up a bit!  
  • Start with small pictures first.  If you are trying to teach your student how to color an entire object in, start with something small so they can feel success.

Ways to change the tools: 

  • Change the coloring tool.  Typically, we use crayons or markers to color.  For students who have difficulty grasping and who have a hard time with the back and forth coloring motion, try dot markers.  They are fun, easy to grasp and make a lot of color very easily and they don’t require a very refined motor movement. 
  • For young students or students having difficulty maintaining a mature grasp on a crayon or marker, use small tools.  Break those crayons!  Seriously.  If there isn’t a lot of crayon to grasp, it forces students to hold it more appropriately. Try pipsqueak markers too!  


Ways to change the task:

  • Provide visual cues of where to glue.  You could point or mark the spot with a marker.
  • ‘Dot, Dot, Not a Lot’ – If you are using squeeze glue, this is a fun saying to use with students to help them understand how much glue to squeeze.
  • Twist the stick glue up just a little.  A lot of students want to turn up the glue stick really high and then smash it into the paper, since it makes such a fun mushy mess.  Try setting the activity up for the child by giving him an already prepped glue stick.  


Ways to change the tools:

  • Glue sticks are easier to use if students have decreased hand strength.  
  • Purple glue sticks are awesome because the child can see exactly where the glue is, as opposed to the white glue sticks that don’t provide any visual contrast.  

Messy Projects

  • I love a good messy art project, but for some students who have tactile sensitivities, these can be really difficult.  Try giving the student a tool to use instead of his hands – a paintbrush, a spoon, anything – it will decrease stress and increase independence with the task.  

Focus on Independence

I will leave you with some food for thought.  I can’t help but cringe a little when I see all kinds of art projects hanging in the hallway that look… well, a little too perfect.  They look really nice, but it’s likely that some students completed them with a very high level of assistance to get to that end product.  I think we sometimes feel the pressure to help our students make things that look cute and correct.  Before you intervene next time, think about this: if they glue on the nose of the bunny a little off center, does it really matter if they used the glue independently? If they decide to color the sun purple, does it matter if they colored independently?  In some cases, yes it may matter a bit, depending on the goal of the activity.  But if not- if the child performed the skill independently but maybe the end product didn’t look quite like the model – I say, let it be. I think independence trumps looks.  

I think when students are able to engage with art materials and activities independently, it positively impacts their confidence and self determination.  It minimizes the amount of assistance we need to provide.  All it takes sometimes is making a small change to a tool or to the task – these small changes can have tremendous impact.  I hope some of the tips I shared today can help you facilitate independence for your students during your next art activity.  Happy creating!


  1. Help!!! you have some really good ideas here but I still have questions. Ive taught art for a really long time, but mostly HS. Now im in a PK-8 school with a k-1Autism group. Most are non verbal, several run away and need to be restrained, etc, and not to mention we are coming off of virtual learning and into hybrid learning. The first day I saw them I had them color a tree with circles of the color wheel, we went over the color wheel. One boy stabbed the paper, but I just reminded him how to go back and forth with the crayon. But I also didn’t totally mind the stabbing, he was still making colorful dots. One boy just ripped up his paper. This week I plan to do a collage where everything is cut or stick on, but talk about texture and gluing and the end activity is play doh. The homeroom teacher and para did not look to excited about me taking out to many supplies because they say they can’t handle them, but how can I teach art if they can’t have any supplies. I feel like I need more ideas on how to change an art supply to be less distracting that they will not throw it or break it or wreak havoc in the room while Im there.

  2. Hi Allison! Thanks for reaching out. Sounds like you have some great ideas for activities in your class! It can be difficult to determine the ‘just right challenge’ in a normal school year, so it must be even more tricky during the transition from remote to in person learning. During this transition, it may be best to keep things simple and get some baseline data on how students do with different tools/textures and different activities. Some tools may be calming and engaging and others may be more disregulating. If certain supplies or tools are overwhelming, it could be helpful to present the needed tools one at a time and remove them from the work space when the child is done working. Sounds like you got some good info on how the students did with crayons and coloring which may inform your future lessons. Additionally, I would recommend to continue thinking about the goal of each activity – is it about the process or the product? Do you just want the students to explore different tools or is there another goal? You mention that you were ok with the child stabbing the paper since he was still participating in the activity of making colorful dots – this is a good way to think about things going forward – are you looking for engagement in the art process or a specific way of doing things? In regards to throwing/destructive behaviors, I would recommend reaching out to the teacher to see if there was a functional behavior assessment performed or the student has a specific behavior plan in place in regards to those behaviors. And finally, there may be an OT working with this classroom who could offer more specific advice based on her observations of the students as well, especially as it relates to motor skills and sensory processing. Thanks for reading and best of luck! – Katie

  3. A student kept applying glue onto himself (forearms and legs-calf), spreading, then peel as it dried up.
    What can I do in replace for this sensor seeking?


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