Arts classes may help relieve stress in kids from poor neighborhoods

    Preschoolers paint together using spray bottles at Paley Early Learning Center in Northeast Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY

    Preschoolers paint together using spray bottles at Paley Early Learning Center in Northeast Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY

    When schools and districts face serious budget cuts, arts programs are typically the first to go.

    But a new study suggests that quality arts education could be lowering stress levels in economically disadvantaged kids.

    Researchers from West Chester University and The University of Delaware studied kids at Kaleidoscope Preschool Arts Enrichment Program. It features a unique curriculum that fully integrates the arts. It primarily serves families who qualify for Head Start, a federally funded program for low-income children.

    By analyzing saliva samples taken throughout the day, Eleanor Brown, a psychology professor at West Chester University, said researchers studied children’s cortisol levels.

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    “Cortisol is a stress hormone. When we face stressful or challenging situations, our cortisol is elevated. And that’s a good thing,” she said.

    However, she said, low-income kids can have chronically high levels of cortisol because they’re exposed to more stressful events, such as having to move a lot or living in violent neighborhoods.

    “And we know that that has a negative impact on learning, our ability to manage our emotions and physical health as well,” Brown said.

    Her team found that cortisol levels were lower after a music, dance or visual arts class than they were during homeroom.

    While it is possible the children are facing different social challenges in homeroom that could be contributing to or causing this effect, Brown believes the answer lies in the arts.

    “We do believe that the arts can be used to foster emotion regulation, and that the arts can get under the skin, possibly changing the imprint of poverty,” she said.

    Brown and her team completed previous studies that compared Settlement Music School’s Kaleidoscope Preschool Arts Enrichment Program to another school without the same arts focus. She found that kids at Kaleidoscope showed growth in school readiness and were five times better able to regulate negative emotions than those at the other school.

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