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.