This blog message was contributed by Astrid Cornelis (Thomas More).
Can poverty get under your skin? It certainly can. Preschool teachers, however, can help to diminish high stress levels in young children of low socioeconomic status. Arts-based activities – including dance, drama, music, and visual arts – seem to be particularly suited to this purpose.
Poverty gets under the skin
Poverty influences physiological systems that respond to stress, as indicated by the hormone cortisol. A constantly elevated level of this stress hormone is harmful to the brain (Peter Adriaenssen, 2018). As a result, economically disadvantaged children face negative emotional, cognitive, and physical health risks (Society for research in child development, 2016).
Arts-based practices lower the impact of poverty-related stress
An experimental study investigated the impact of music, dance, and visual arts classes on cortisol for children facing poverty risks (Brown et al, 2016). 310 children, ages 3 to 5 years, were randomly assigned to participate in different programs of arts or business-as-usual classes. The arts activities, of which there were several each day, were designed to foster skill development in the arts as well as in other domains such as language, mathematics, and science.
The results revealed lower cortisol after participation in music, dance, and visual arts compared with business-as-usual classes. This suggests that the art classes – which were taught by credentialed artist-teachers – have value-added beyond the limited integration of the arts found in typical homeroom classes.
Significant positive effects for the art classes, however, were not apparent at the start of the preschool year but rather emerged by the middle of the year and were maintained at the year’s end. The researchers point out that the physiological benefits of arts programming may depend on children’s adjustment to art classes.
The arts’ hidden powers
Teachers introduce art activities in the classroom primarily with a view to promote skill development in the arts; to encourage children’s sense of creativity, their imaginative powers, and to initiate their interest in the arts.
But arts-based practices have also multiple other positive effects. Brown & Sax (2013) found that there was greater growth in emotion regulation skills in children who attended music, dance, and visual arts classes. Another study suggests that drawing can lead to short-term mood improvement (Drake & Winner, 2013). A study by Winsler, Duceene & Koury (2011) documented advantage in self-regulation for young children who participated in a music program. A study by Lobo & Winsler (2006) demonstrated that children who participated in a creative dance and movement program showed improvement with regard to social skills and problem handling.
Research does not leave any room for doubt: the impact of arts activities is beneficial to children, the more so to those exposed to poverty risks.
If arts activities can contribute to a reduction of this particular stress, as extensive research rigorously demonstrates, getting the arts “under the children’s skin” is every preschool teacher’s personal responsibility.
- Adriaenssens P. (2018). Interview in De Afspraak, VRT. Geraadpleegd op 19 september 2019, van https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2018/11/28/peter-adriaenssens-kinderarmoede/
- Brown, E. D., & Sax, K. L. (2013). Arts enrichment and preschool emotions for low-income children at risk. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28, 337-346.
- Drake, J., & Winner, E. (2013). How children use drawing to regulate their emotions. Cognition and emotion, 27, 512-520.
- Eleanor D. Brown, Mallory L. Garnett, Kate E. Anderson, Jean-Philippe Laurenceau. Can the Arts Get Under the Skin? Arts and Cortisol for Economically Disadvantaged Children. Child Development, 2016.
- Lobo, Y.B., & Winsler, A. (2006). The effects of a creative dance and movement program on the social competence of Head Start preschoolers. Social Development, 15, 501-519.
- Society for Research in Child Development (2016). Arts programming may help lower stress in economically disadvantaged preschoolers. ScienceDaily. Consulted on 9 September 2019, at www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161206110315.htm
- Winsler, A. , Duceene, L., & Koury, A. (2011). Singing one’s way to self-regulation: The role of early music and movement curricula and private speck. Early Education and Development, 22, 274-304.