The Real Impact of the Arts, Shown through Science

An art project, a handwritten poster, a video or a photo—all of these demonstrate what pre-kindergarten students work on each day. The best evidence of what they learn, it turns out, is invisible, but it can be found through a sample of their saliva.

Taking a saliva sample under the tongue lasts only about a minute, but it forms the foundation for remarkable new research conducted by Dr. Eleanor Brown of West Chester University. Dr. Brown has studied students in Kaleidoscope, Settlement Music School’s nationally-renowned, arts-integrated pre-kindergarten program, since 2008, looking at the effects of arts-integrated education on children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  The latest research, published in the journal Child Development, points to exposure to the arts helping to counteract the negative emotional and physical effects of poverty and offers, in Brown’s words, “indisputable evidence of the arts’ impact.”

The findings, titled “Can the Arts Get Under the Skin? Arts Classes and Cortisol Levels for Economically Disadvantaged Preschool Children,” reflects four years of collaboration between West Chester University’s Early Childhood Cognition and Emotions Lab and Settlement’s Early Childhood program. The research, funded in part through a National Endowment for the Art Artworks grant, involves testing cortisol, a hormone associated with elevated stress levels. Over the course of four years, saliva samples were taken from Kaleidoscope students at the beginning, middle and end of the school year and tested for cortisol levels.

Sampling was conducted following both arts classes and general academic instruction, and measurements taken before and after the students’ arts classes showed reduced levels of cortisol. “Because the impact of the Kaleidoscope arts classes is visible through testing rather than through observed behavior, we now have strong evidence of the ability of music and the related arts to get ‘under the skin’ of those who take part,” Dr. Brown says.

The recent research on cortisol builds on earlier research by Brown, as well as her colleagues and students, dating back to 2008. Her previous findings on school-readiness and emotion regulation have shown that Kaleidoscope better prepares its students better than peer pre-K programs without intensive arts-based programs, and that students show higher vocabulary scores, the increased ability of students to manage emotions, and greater levels of positive emotional qualities like interest, happiness and pride.

“The tremendous impact that the Kaleidoscope program and its innovative curriculum has on these young children’s lives is clear to all of us at Settlement,” says Helen Eaton, Chief Executive Officer of Settlement Music School. “We are so grateful for the opportunity, through Dr. Brown’s research, to share what happens every day at Settlement with a wider audience so that children and educators alike might benefit.”

Learn more about the Kaleidoscope program here, and find more of Dr. Brown's research, including the most recent study in Child Development, here.

Dr. Eleanor Brown, of West Chester University