Arts education – helps ‘manage emotions’

Here at Children & the Arts, we’re always interested in hearing how art education around the world is making a difference to children’s lives.

So we were particularly fascinated by a new piece of US research that suggests an arts-rich curriculum can boost learning in schools. The idea is that integrating the arts into mainstream pre-school education can help young children from difficult or disadvantaged backgrounds master tricky emotions like sadness, anger and fear.

According to researchers, a heavy focus on arts activities for young pupils produced more ‘positive emotions such as interest, happiness and pride, and greater growth in emotion regulation across the school year.’

In the study, 174 students in Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School preschool were compared with 31 students who attended another preschool nearby. Ninety percent were from low-income families.  The arts-enriched programme included daily music, visual arts and physical movement classes as well as standard lessons.

Research assistants observed the children at regular intervals to determine their emotional states, reporting back on whether a child was easily frustrated, displayed wide mood swings, and how they showed empathy or concern for others.

Interestingly, the two groups of children exhibited around the same level of negative emotions. But those in the arts-enriched group ‘showed more interest, happiness and pride’ than their counterparts, according to the research team. Crucially, reports indicated that the arts-group members showed greater improvement in their ability to understand and manage uncomfortable feelings.

“Experiences with the arts elicit a range of emotions,” said researchers Brown and Sax, who carried out the study. “And these may help children to understand connections between events as feelings, as well as practice appropriate strategies to regulate their emotions.”

With many arts programmes in schools being cut back – and possibly under threat altogether by the new EBacc examination which will focus on ‘core’ academic subjects – it’s arguable that any research that highlights the value of early arts education in both the short and the long term is vitally important.

Success in later life

Rather than being an optional extra, this study suggests that the arts, and integrating the arts in education, can help underprivileged children gain the emotional maturity needed for success in school, and in later life.

At Children & the Arts, we think more research into this fascinating area is needed.  To that end, we have commissioned the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) to study the effectivenness of our Start programme, which enables schoolchildren to visit their local arts venue – in 2010/2011 alone, it brought together 38 arts organisations and 16,000 schoolchildren from 214 schools nationwide.  If we can find out how to improve learning outcomes for young children, boosting their self-confidence and helping them to achieve their full potential, even those who are hardest to reach will be able to enjoy a better equality of opportunity.

Read our CEO Jeremy Newton’s response to the EBacc by clicking here

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