Art Works Blog

Can the Arts Reduce Stress in Children?

Today, the NEA announced $350,000 in support of 17 new research grants, which offer innovative new ways to measure the value and impact of the arts in the U.S. While descriptions of all our new grantees can be found online, we thought we’d take a closer look at a project from West Chester University (WCU) in Pennsylvania that aims to study the physiological effect of the arts on the stress patterns of low-income children.

Led by Dr. Eleanor Brown, who directs WCU’s Early Childhood Cognition and Emotions Lab, the grant project will analyze samples of the stress hormone cortisol taken from the saliva of children living in low-income communities. Half of these children attended an arts-enriched Head Start program, while the rest attended a more traditional Head Start center. As Brown noted, these are children who are often facing neighborhood violence, family instability, and insufficient economic resources. These characteristics of poverty can contribute to chronically high levels of stress, and as research has shown, elevated levels of cortisol. Although a short-term increase in cortisol during dangerous, high-stress situations can be beneficial---think of the “flight or fight” instinct---chronically elevated levels of the hormone can negatively affect cognition, physical health, and emotional well-being.

“When cortisol is increased repeatedly, or over long periods of time, it contributes to what's called high allostatic load,” said Brown. “It’s a tax on physiological systems that respond to stress, and that tax on our systems relates to problems with memory and learning as well as emotions. There is evidence that high allostatic load interferes with children's successful school performance. It also relates to a number of health problems that range from increased insulin resistance to hypertension and obesity. This is why we’re interested in whether the arts may reduce stress.”

In the study, Brown and her team will look at whether daily arts programming results in reduced cortisol levels, which she says “would mean that children would be more regulated overall, and more focused on learning, and better able to engage with what’s in front of them in school” Because early childhood is a formative period, she also hopes that early arts intervention could help protect children against longer-term effects of heightened cortisol.

The project will study whether possible changes in cortisol are temporary, or if the arts can alter a child’s baseline levels of the hormone. If the latter, how many arts classes per day or per week are necessary to make a difference? Depending on what the results shows, there could be powerful new evidence to support the benefits of the arts for children living in poverty.

“Cortisol is an indisputable biological indicator of functioning,” said Brown. “We have the opportunity to perhaps show that the arts can ‘get under the skin’ and influence physiological systems, and to show unquestionably that the arts can cause positive changes for children.”

For more about the impact of arts on early childhood development, tune in tomorrow at 2 p.m. ET for a webinar on how federal agencies are using arts education to foster the well-being of our youngest populations. Presenters include Dr. Brown, NEA Research Director Sunil Iyengar, and Amanda Bryans from the  Office of Head Start, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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