REACH Lab Blog Entry #1 - Blanca Velazquez-Martin & REACH Project Investigators
Blanca Velazquez-Martin & REACH Project Investigators
Music and the arts cannot guarantee equality, nor can they undo the root causes of inequality, such as a poverty and racism, but…what if we had scientific evidence of the potential for the arts to counter some of the toxic effects of these forms of adversity on young children?
With this question in mind, we welcome you to the Research on Equity via the Arts in Childhood (REACH) blog. Through this space, we will present a series of posts highlighting work from our research team that builds an evidence base for how high-quality creative arts experiences can mitigate the effects of poverty, racism, and related forms of adversity, and promote the flourishing of young children.
Across centuries, individuals from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds have employed creativity, imagination, invention, and artistic skill as sources of resilience, healing, connection, growth, and social change. Opportunities to cultivate these skills, however, are not always shared or protected; poverty and systemic racism create opportunity gaps in children’s access to the arts and creative experiences.
At the Research on Equity via the Arts in Childhood (REACH) Lab, we partner with community organizations that promote equity in access to arts and creative experiences to study their impact on children and families facing stress and trauma related to poverty and racism. We are committed to building on individual and community strengths and to examining what could happen if children and families were provided with culturally relevant and supportive opportunities for experiencing, engaging, imagining, inventing, and originating. We are beginning our investigation with an in-depth set of studies focused on music.
Our keystone study focuses on Settlement Music School’s Kaleidoscope Preschool Arts Enrichment Program. In a prior NEA-funded study focused on this preschool, we asked, “Can the arts get under the skin?” and the answer was Yes. Music and other arts classes related to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol for children facing poverty, racism, and related adversity. In the keystone study, the REACH team will work to identify the types of music experiences that might be linked to these ameliorative effects, as well as investigate the impact of music and correlated physiological changes on other aspects of child self-regulation.
Another REACH study focuses on Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project, implemented in Philadelphia in partnership with World Café Live. This project pairs new parents and caregivers with professional artists to write and sing personal lullabies for their babies and toddlers. Existing data suggests an important impact on the parent-child relationship, and the present study aims to better understand how such shared music and creative activities might increase mutual regulation and attachment as well as nurture early communicative development in young children and their caregivers.
The final REACH study in this set focuses on Play on Philly, an intensive orchestral music education program for elementary school students. Our prior studies have linked this programming to increased child self-regulation and persistence, and the present study aims to better understand the physiological mechanisms underlying these effects.
Led by an interdisciplinary team of investigators that includes Drs. Ellie Brown, Dennie Palmer Wolf, and Steven Holochwost, the establishment of the Research on Equity via the Arts in Childhood (REACH) lab has been made possible by a cooperative award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) through their Arts Research Labs program (https://www.arts.gov/initiatives/nea-research-labs).
Drs. Brown, Wolf, and Holochwost bring diverse expertise to this project. Brown is a licensed clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology at West Chester University, Wolf is WolfBrown’s principal researcher and one of the nation’s leading arts education researchers and evaluators, and Holochwost is a developmental neuroscientist serving as an Associate Professor at CUNY’s Lehman College and Director of Research for Youth & Families at WolfBrown. All three investigators are dedicated to using developmental science to address social inequities and improve the lives of children placed at risk by poverty and other forms of adversity. They join with their community partners and with a vibrant team of graduate, postgraduate, and undergraduate scholars to pursue the present ambitious arts research agenda.
The REACH agenda will help investigators and research-trainees take a deeper dive into the ways music and the arts can directly benefit child and family wellbeing. Through this blog, we hope to share more about our research questions, plans, and findings, and to engage your mind in thinking with us about the possibilities for using creativity and the arts to advance shared goals of equity. We also hope to share more about the wonderful children, families, and community partners engaged in the music and arts activities that are central to this project.
Join us as we learn more about the impact of music and arts programming on young children and families, and REACH with us to consider how music and the arts might be implemented to provide impactful arts experiences, alleviate stress, and promote positive development for children facing adversity.
“Music and the arts cannot guarantee equality, nor can they undo the root causes of inequality, such as a poverty and racism, but they may have the potential to counter some of the toxic effects of these forms of adversity on young children.”
~ REACH Lab Investigators
REACH Lab Blog Entry #2 - Dennie Palmer Wolf and Kathleen Hill
The REACH Lab is excited to announce that several researchers' work on orchestral music as a context for fostering growth mindsets was selected for inclusion in a recently published volume from Frontiers in Psychology titled "The Psychological and Physiological Benefits of the Arts." We are honored to be included in the growing global conversation about the arts as a human experience with major potential to encourage, heal, and connect. The volume is especially useful as it contains research rooted in a full range of artistic fields: dance, music, theater, and visual arts, and includes findings with participants at every stage of human development: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and seniors. Finally, the volume places US-based work in conversation with researchers from around the globe, helping to initiate a much more international exchange of perspectives and methods.
For us, as developmental researchers, we are especially excited to be contributing arguments for and evidence of the arts as a strategy for equalizing children’s access to opportunities for growth fueled by the arts. In particular, we are committed to the examination of the impact of arts participation on social-emotional outcomes like self-regulation, growth mindset, and empathy. To our way of thinking, arts experiences – when thoughtfully and well delivered – nurture these capacities. Practicing an instrumental part requires the kinds of candid self- assessment and investment in change that may promote growth mindset. Improvising dialogue from a character’s point of view may stretch the understandings that build empathy. In this sense, such investigations into the overlap between the arts and social-emotional learning dissolve the dichotomy between instrumental and intrinsic approaches to evaluating artistic outcomes.
Our contribution to the volume, “Planting the Seeds: Orchestral Music as a Context for Fostering Growth Mindsets” explores these kinds of outcomes. It brings together the work of REACH Lab members Steven J. Holochwost, Eleanor D. Brown, and Dennie Palmer Wolf, with insights from Kate E. Anderson, Judith Hill Bose, and Elizabeth Stuk. It was because of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) research initiatives that WolfBrown and West Chester University scholars joined together to author this contribution, and we are grateful to our colleagues at the NEA for their leadership and support.
We also are thankful to our partners at the Longy School of Music of Bard College as well as the programmatic partners for their scholarship and collaboration. Additionally, we would like to thank the Mellon Foundation and the Buck Family Foundation for supporting this vital work.
The Frontiers e-book, comprising nearly 90 articles selected from an international set of researchers is now available online on the publisher’s website.
REACH Lab Blog Entry #3 - Dennie Palmer Wolf
Wired for Inequality: Early Urgencies for Arts Pathways
These are times when arts organizations are thinking hard about the canon on which they draw: who performs or curates, who sits in a corner office, and who earns only tips in the dark of the coat check. But many sources of inequality are not so high profile – instead they are the unquestioned practices of “business as usual” coursing through the photos we choose, the language we use, and the “small” details of everything from job descriptions to budgets. But, in fact, these daily practices comprise the wiring that keeps inequalities running -- smoothly, quietly, and relentlessly.
Consider this example: We have overwhelming evidence that humans realize their most rapid brain development in the years 0 – 5 when they also learn the fundamentals of human relationships and construct the roots of every symbol system—language, drawing, gesture, music, and numbers. Even so, look into the details of the federal budget, and you will see that we spend only 7% on children, and of that tiny total, only 7% goes toward early education. The cost of that detail of federal spending becomes clear when you realize that 15.5% of all children under five live in poverty, but Black (28%), American Indian (25%) and Latino (23%) preschoolers are more likely to grow up poor when compared to their non-Hispanic white (10%) and Asian and Pacific Islander (9%) peers. This means many equipotential young lives are limited by insufficient access to the nutrition, health care, housing, or learning opportunities that would let them fully realize this early burst of development. These choices wire in the uneven success of children later in elementary school, and the eventually differential life outcomes as varied as health, lifespan, and earnings. Couple this disinvestment with another stubborn “detail”: poor children’s uneven access to schools with regular and sequential arts education, orchestras, drama and dance programs, or creative writing clubs. Then, you have a hard-wired system that undercuts what the United Nations has declared a basic human right:
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
– Article 27, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations General Assembly, 1948)
Arts organizations (leaders, boards, staff, and teaching artists) could disrupt these stubborn, business-as-usual, patterns – if they invented, supported, and sustained arts-enriched early learning environments at home and in childcare settings. In fact, there is a growing body of research demonstrating the measurable effects of quality early education on children’s relationships, language development, social-emotional strengths, and sense of identity.
Underscoring this potential, the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded a two-year grant to REACH (Research on Equity via the Arts in Childhood) as one of its national labs, bringing together early childhood researchers from WolfBrown, West Chester University, and Lehman College. At the heart of the lab is this question: “What could we learn about promoting and protecting the earliest forms of human development, if we made early, sustained, high-quality arts learning available to children growing up in poverty?” To answer this question, the lab is conducting three basic research studies of the impact of music on children’s growth including:
- A study of early family relationships that builds on Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project to examine how early music, movement, and play provide affordable, portable, culturally appropriate moments of mutual delight that foster communication and interaction skills.
- A study of how preschoolers’ arousal levels and social-emotional functioning is supported through an arts-infused preschool in Philadelphia based on the Settlement Music School’s Kaleidoscope program.
- A study of early elementary school children’s instrumental music learning at another Philadelphia-based organization, Play on Philly, with a focus on understanding the underlying physiological processes, along with the focus and self-regulation skills, that learning to play an instrument may foster.
Early access to arts pathways won’t undo the root causes of inequality such as poverty, racism, and our ingrained indifference to the needs of poor families raising young children. But these studies, and others like them, argue for arts organizations acting in partnership with young families who are their children’s first teachers. Further, the work urges arts organizations to go way beyond ticketed family matinees and free activities once a month.
Finally, and far from incidentally, this work urges all of us who work in the cultural sector to examine the “small” details of our own daily work that, left unexamined, quietly and steadily fuel systems of inequality. For example, our first round of lullaby data collected and coded information to investigate whether the experience changed the ways caregivers and children spoke to and played with one another. But never once did we sit down with mothers and fathers to ask, “What do you see happening?” In some sense we kept them – the experts – locked in their role of observed subjects. In this next cohort, we intend to break out of this separation, watching the videos with parents, to learn what they feel and know. It is a first, and small, step to re-wiring the house.
REACH Lab Blog Entry #4 - Dr. Ellie Brown with Drs. Dennie Palmer Wolf and Steven Holochwost
Guide or Get Out
To optimize music’s benefits for young children, should teachers guide or get out of the way?
Here in the REACH Lab, we’ve been probing the role of teachers in arts education. Our past work has indicated that certain music experiences relate to decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol for young children, potentially alleviating the toll imposed by stress related to poverty and racism. In a recent REACH project, we’ve dug into this finding and examined whether the benefits of music change depending on: (1) whether teachers versus children direct the music activities; and (2) the quality of teacher-child interactions around these activities.
Research can be fun when you find evidence of something you already know is true. And we all know high quality teacher-child interactions matter, so we expected to see this in the data - and we did. For children in an arts-integrated preschool, music activities that were characterized by higher quality teacher-child interactions were associated with decreased levels of child cortisol compared with music activities that had less teacher-child interaction or less supportive interaction - an affirming finding.
But for many of us, it’s most exciting when you explore questions for which we don’t yet know the answer, and that was the case with the question about teacher or child direction. We were fascinated to see what the data would show about whether music had the greatest benefits for child stress regulation when teachers directed the activities or whether it was most beneficial when children did.
On one hand, there is evidence that adult involvement in creative and other play activities promotes the benefits of those activities for young children’s development (cf., Fisher et al., 2013). However, there is also some evidence suggesting that the benefits of arts education for children’s HPA-axis activity is explained, in part, by the extent to which those activities offer children an opportunity for child-directed or free play. For example, the arts activities that were associated with lower levels of cortisol in a study conducted by Toyoshima and colleagues (2011) were all self-directed.
For our study at the arts-integrated preschool, the data suggested lower stress levels when children directed the specific music activities. This was particularly interesting given that this finding was apparent alongside that for teacher-child interaction: In the final model, child stress levels were lowest when children directed the activities and teachers provided high quality support around these activities. How fascinating that a combination of child autonomy and teacher support was most powerful!
I’ve reflected on these findings several times when watching children during visits to the preschool. Recently, I watched Jayden, a child who struggles to regulate his behavior, as he engaged in a music class in which children had opportunities to play tom-tom drums. During the first part of the class, which was teacher-directed, he showed easy skill with the instrument, coordinating hands and beats to the teacher’s instructions. I could imagine that if he received continued instruction and support for his skill development, music generally, or percussion, specifically, could become an area of competence and pride for him - perhaps supporting more general resilience. Given these potential benefits, as a clinical psychologist, I certainly wouldn’t suggest we remove teacher direction from an early childhood music program - even if we only were concerned with social-emotional outcomes.
But as I was observing through the lens of our REACH findings (and not trying to counter confirmatory bias that may have been operating), it did seem to me that Jayden was in a state of considerable arousal as he was following the teacher direction. Some of this most likely was adaptive, as he was attending and following instructions - or at least mostly following them. But his occasional vocalizations out of turn and his inability to stop beating the drum when asked suggested he was not fully regulated…yet.
Jayden’s body showed visible relaxation as the class transitioned to a child-directed segment, where children had an opportunity to experiment with different instruments. The music teacher and an assistant who also was present rotated and supported children around their chosen activities. Jayden stuck with the tom-tom drum, yet was now moving to his own rhythm, without tension. I couldn’t help but think levels of the stress hormone cortisol now would be lower than during the teacher-directed part.
Given the lens of our study, I was curious to see how Jayden would behave as the teacher concluded the class with a group goodbye song and dance. This song was familiar to the children, so it may be unwise to compare it to the first group drumming activity. Nonetheless, I wondered if Jayden would struggle to contain his energy, perhaps vocalizing out of turn again or continuing motions beyond their turn. Interestingly, he did not. Had the child-directed portion helped him to regulate in a way that now supported his more relaxed participation in the cooperative goodbye song? We don’t yet have a study that provides data on this, but it certainly seems possible, and would be interesting to explore.
Should teachers guide or get out of the way? Undoubtedly, there are times for each of these pedagogical strategies. But our recent REACH study suggests that if goals of child stress reduction are the priority, then teachers should neither guide nor get out of the way - rather, they might facilitate music experiences that allow for children to direct activities while receiving high quality teacher support.
REACH Lab Blog Entry #5 – Dennie Palmer Wolf
Collaborating Toward Change
“For excellence, the presence of others is always required.” – Hannah Arendt
These are times when arts organizations are thinking hard about the canon on which they draw: who performs or curates, who sits in a corner office, and who earns only tips in the dark of the coat check. But many of the sources of inequality are not so high profile – instead, they are the unquestioned practices of “business as usual” coursing through the photos we choose, the language we use, and the “small” details of everything from job descriptions to budgets. But, in fact, these daily practices comprise the wiring that keeps inequalities running — smoothly, quietly, and relentlessly. Among these practices is who is visible and who is invisible. In filmmaking lingo – who is above and who is below the line. Part of equitable pathways in the arts involves examining who designs, conducts, presents, and authors research as compared to who provides, collects, cleans, and enters the data. Yes, skills, knowledge, and experience matter, but what does a strict hierarchy of who has insight cost us?
In 2020, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded a two-year grant to REACH (Research on Equity via the Arts in Childhood) as one of its national labs, bringing together early childhood researchers from WolfBrown, West Chester University, and Lehman College. It is a project with two hearts. One is the pursuit of the following question: “What could we learn about promoting human development through the arts, if we created and sustained high-quality arts pathways and made them available to children who would not otherwise have those opportunities?”
To answer this question, the lab is conducting three basic research studies of the impact of early arts pathways on the development of children growing up in poverty:
- A study of early family relationships that builds on Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project. It intends to examine how early music, movement, and play provide affordable, portable, culturally appropriate moments of mutual delight that foster communication and interaction skills. If early behavioral findings prove strong, we hope to go on to examine how musical play, and the intimacy it creates, affects the release of the bonding hormone oxytocin.
- A study of how preschoolers’ arousal levels, as measured by cortisol levels and their social-emotional functioning, are moderated through an arts-infused preschool program. It has been designed and hosted in partnership with Philadelphia-based Settlement Music School.
- A study of early elementary school children’s instrumental music learning at another Philadelphia-based organization, Play on Philly. Its focus is on understanding the underlying physiological processes, along with the focus and self-regulation skills, that learning to play an instrument may foster.
The other heart of REACH is acknowledging a community of insight. Each of the studies involves a diverse group of students who will one day enter the early childhood field as clinicians, social workers, or early educators. Each of the studies is also committed to drawing on the insight of everyone involved. For instance, in the Lullaby study, we held “watch parties” to view our video data together. In those sessions, the clinicians-in-training taught the rest of us to be as interested in the “misfires” as in the smooth-running episodes between caregivers and children, arguing that negotiation is where partners learn from each other. These exchanges are leading us to design a culminating convening designed to bring practitioners and developmental scientists together as two sides of an equation.
Finally, and far from incidentally, this work has urged us to examine other not-so-small details of our daily work that, left unexamined, quietly and steadily fuel systems of inequality. For example, our first round of lullaby data collected and coded information to investigate whether the experience changed how caregivers and children spoke to and played with one another. But never once did we sit down with those caregivers to ask, “What do you see happening?” In some sense, we kept them – the actual experts – locked in their role as observed subjects. In this next cohort, we intend to forge a different type of collaboration, watching the videos with parents to learn what they experience while writing their lullaby and what it is that their teaching-artist partners do that facilitates their experience. Together, we want to figure out what features of the lullaby process are the most powerful for families in order to build them into what we do going forward.
Opening up pathways within arts research won’t undo the root causes of inequality, such as poverty, racism, and our ingrained indifference to the needs of poor families raising young children. But we see these studies, the work with a next generation of early childhood professionals, and the effort to learn from and with families as small, but necessary, steps in cutting a new path to thinking about knowledge generation as a mutual, deeply social, activity informed by distributed expertise.
It is a first and small step in re-thinking how we collaborate.
This post was also published in WolfBrown’s Amplifying Creative Opportunities blog.