(Photo: Horace Abrahams/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Poverty leads to stress, which in turn leads to poorer health. Breaking this cycle is certainly a challenge, especially with children. But promising new research provides evidence of an effective, low-cost intervention: arts education.
A study featuring 310 economically disadvantaged preschoolers reports music, dance, and visual arts lessons effectively reduced their stress levels as measured by the level of a common hormone.
This effect kicked in during the first half of the school year, and remained strong through the program’s conclusion.
“Our study is the first we know of that demonstrates that the arts may help alleviate the impact of poverty on children’s physiological functioning,” West Chester University psychologist Eleanor Brown, the study’s primary investigator, writes in the journal Child Development.
The three- to five-year-old children all attended the Settlement Music School’s Kaleidoscope Preschool Arts Enrichment Program in Philadelphia. While part of the federal Head Start program, the preschool is unique “in its full integration of the arts,” the researchers note. The children “receive multiple arts classes each day, taught in fully equipped artist studios by credentialed artist-teachers.”
The children were of many races, but all were from low-income families. And poverty has been widely associated with elevated stress.
Our bodies react to stressful situations by increasing our cortisol level, which gives us extra energy to protect ourselves against a perceived threat. People living in poverty (or other high-stress situations) often suffer from chronic elevated cortisol, which has been linked to a variety of health problems, including cognitive and emotional difficulties.
Emotional self-regulation is taught as part of the arts classes.
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The children’s cortisol levels were measured on two separate days at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year. Saliva samples were taken in the morning (to establish a baseline) and at mid-morning, noon, and afternoon, following either an arts or a home-room class. (Their schedules were staggered to ensure the results reflected the impact of a specific class, rather than the time of day.)
The researchers found that, at mid-year and again at the end of the school year, the kids’ average cortisol levels were lower after an arts class than they were after their home-room period. This held true whether the arts class was music, dance, or visual art.
“This suggests that arts classes … taught by credentialed artist-teachers have value added beyond the limited integration of the arts found in typical home-room classes based on (Head Start’s) creative curriculum,” they conclude.
The fact that these positive effects emerged at the middle of the year “suggests that physiological benefits of arts programming may not be manifested upon children’s initial exposure,” the researchers add. Rather, they “may depend on children’s adjustment, or accumulated skill acquisition.”
Precisely why the children’s stress level lowered isn’t entirely clear. The researchers note that emotional self-regulation is taught as part of the arts classes. Presumably, learning artistic skills also helps the kids develop the ability to focus and concentrate, and activities such as singing and dancing certainly allow for emotional release.
Whatever the specifics, the classes’ positive impact is clear. If you still think of arts education as a luxury — well, is good mental and emotional health a luxury too?