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2016 University News

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Combatting the Stress of Poverty Through Art

Arts Programs May Help Lower Stress in Economically Disadvantaged Preschoolers

Ellie Brown can demonstrate that intense, regular arts programming may reduce stress levels for economically disadvantaged children. She led a multi-year study that found that preschoolers' levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – were lower after arts classes than after homeroom.

Poverty causes stress not only in adults, but in children, whose educational, social-emotional, and physical health are negatively affected. "Our study is the first we know of that demonstrates that the arts may help alleviate the impact of poverty on children's physiological functioning," notes Brown, the WCU psychology professor who founded and is director of the University's Early Childhood Cognition and Emotions Lab (ECCEL).

With funding from the Research: Art Works program at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Brown took cortisol samples (saliva) from 310 economically disadvantaged preschoolers attending a unique Head Start program, Philadelphia's Settlement Music School Kaleidoscope Preschool Arts Enrichment Program. The program integrates arts experiences fully into the curriculum by having credentialed art teachers teach the children in multiple daily arts classes (music, dance, or the visual arts) in fully equipped studios. Teachers also used the arts classes to promote learning in core early childhood domains like language, literacy, and math.

Brown engaged WCU psychology students in the task of collecting and analyzing 7,000 samples of children's saliva. They collected samples at morning baseline and after arts and homeroom classes on two different days at the start, middle, and end of the school year. The result is rigorously analyzed, scientific data indicating that exposure to intense art experiences can reduce stress in children growing up in poverty.

"The study has important implications," says Brown. "In an ideal world, no child would grow up in poverty. Working toward this ideal requires attention not only to economic inequities but also to the many related inequities that harm children who grow up poor. … This study demonstrates that a nonmonetary intervention can reduce cortisol levels. In this case, the intervention is the arts."

It's also possible, she continues, that exposure to the arts in preschool may be one avenue toward "disrupting the strong predictive relationship between poverty and negative outcomes. … This study sets the stage for further investigation regarding the arts as a vehicle for promoting well-being among children from disadvantaged families."

Brown's research was recently published in Child Development, the journal for the Society for Research in Child Development (Can the Arts Get Under the Skin? Arts Classes and Cortisol Levels for Economically Disadvantaged Preschool Children by Brown, Eleanor D.; Garnett, Mallory L.; Anderson, Kate E. (West Chester University); and Laurenceau, Jean-Philippe (University of Delaware, psychology).

The study is also singled out as an example of effective community-engaged research in NEA's Dec. 8 announcement for The National Endowment for the Arts Guide to Community-Engaged Research in the Arts and Health. This free online guide encourages collaboration among researchers, artists, and practitioners to study the arts' effects on health and extend this research to arts programs or therapies. The guide was made available in early December in recognition of a growing movement to integrate the arts with health in community-based programs.

Read more about Ellie Brown.