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Arts Help Development of Social, Emotional Skills in Early Childhood

A new review of research on arts and early childhood from the National Endowment for the Arts finds that arts programs help children develop social and emotional skills in early childhood — but that there's still a need for more research on different artistic disciplines and on how arts can affect different groups of students.

The review's authors found 18 articles published between 2000 and 2015 that focused on art and involved children between birth and the age of 8. 

Many of those articles had compelling findings about how exposure to the arts seemed to benefit students socially and emotionally. Parents who reported singing to their children three times per week also reported that their children had stronger social skills. Children who participated in a regular dance group were reported to have stronger social skills by their teachers. Mothers who participated in a five-week music program reported that the quality of their attachment to their child improved. 

Music activities were also associated with better emotional regulation in young children. For instance, in one study, drawing a house helped children regulate their moods.

The reviewers found also found two studies that indicated that austistic children benefited from music and music therapy sessions.

Not all of the findings were positive. Young children who took music lessons in voice and piano did not seem to experience an improvement in social skills; one study found that teachers felt that students' social skills improved after music classes, but parents didn't note the same improvement.

Arts in Early Childhood- Cover Final 12.15.15.jpgBut the review also points to gaps in research on arts and early childhood. There has been little study on how arts affect some specific groups of children, including those who have disabilities, or those who are anxious or withdrawn. There is also not much about how different races, ages, or genders respond to arts.

There's also a difference in how various artistic disciplines might affect students differently. Most of the existing research involving young children focuses on music and dance. But some research has indicated that drama programs might affect social skills more than music programs, or that music programs may be more tied to emotional development than building with blocks. 

The review concludes with a call for more research on how arts participation affects social-emotional skills over time; how arts can affect students from different socioeconomic demographics; the impact of the arts on students with disabilities or special needs; and on distinctions between the arts' impact on students.  

The report quotes Libby Doggett, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education: "This new review adds to the growing evidence about how arts participation helps young children develop strong social and emotional skills. Yet we need to delve deeper into how and why the various art forms impact children's learning."

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