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NEA Awards $25,000 Grant to WCU Researcher

"Children are naturally curious about the arts," says West Chester University researcher Ellie Brown. "Music, dance and visual arts engage multiple senses."

When fully integrated into a preschool curriculum, the arts can become much more than crayons and crafts, Brown says - especially for low-income children. The arts can promote the development of cognitive skills and help preschoolers understand, cope with and regulate their emotions, which prepares them for a positive learning experience at school.

Brown's research with co-author and former graduate student Kacey L. Sax, "Arts enrichment and preschool emotions for low-income children at risk," which Early Childhood Research Quarterly just published (#28; 2013. 337-346.), confirms the correlation between an integrated arts enrichment preschool program and more confident, school-ready children. It is the first study to examine the impact of arts-integrated Head Start programming on the emotional competence of low-income children who are at risk for school problems.

She conducted research at Settlement Music School's Kaleidoscope Preschool Arts Enrichment Program, where music, dance and visual arts are firmly enmeshed in the early childhood development curriculum. Children at Settlement's program exhibited more positive emotions - interest, happiness, pride - compared to their peers at a comparison Head Start preschool Brown included in the survey.

Now, Brown can take another step toward establishing the link between consistent exposure to the arts and well-adjusted preschoolers. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has awarded her a $25,000 grant that supports her research on the relationship between levels of the stress hormone cortisol and arts engagement among Head Start preschool students.

Of the 17 projects funded during this round of Art Works: Research grants, hers is one of the few mentioned in the NEA's press release as an example of the way art can positively impact communities. It is also the one project featured in this NEA blog.

Brown and trained student researchers from her "Field Experience in Diverse Communities" class at West Chester have already gathered the cortisol samples from the Head Start children, as well as demographic information from caregivers. The NEA grant will help in the evaluation and statistical phase.

Brown also connected with the NEA, the national director of Head Start, and other federal agency representatives in an April webinar to discuss incorporating arts education into early childhood development programs. An archive of the webinar is available here.

An associate professor of psychology, Ellie Brown joined the West Chester faculty in 2005. She is founder and director of the University's Early Childhood Cognition and Emotions Lab, which complements her research in how poverty and oppression influence children's learning and emotional well being.