The Benefits of Arts Education for K-12 Students

Your child’s art class involves a lot more than just the Crayola marker scribble-scrabble that will end up hanging on your refrigerator.

“Good arts education is not about the product,” says Jamie Kasper, director of the Arts Education Partnership and a former music teacher. “It is about the process of learning.”

Policymakers, school administrators and parents alike may overlook the significance of arts education, but these programs can be a crucial component of your child’s school life. Whether they’re practicing lines for a school play or cutting up magazine scraps for a collage, children can use art to tap into their creative side and hone skills that might not be the focus of other content areas, including communication, fine motor skills and emotional intelligence.

“Sometimes folks who are not involved in the arts focus on the product without realizing that that is not the most important part of what we do,” Kasper says.

While arts programs often fall victim to budget cuts, they can be an important contributor to students’ overall success at school. Arts education can help kids:

— Engage with school and reduce stress.

— Develop social-emotional and interpersonal skills.

— Enrich their experiences.

— Handle constructive criticism.

— Bolster academic achievement.

— Improve focus.

Engage With School and Reduce Stress

Kasper says she often hears from other educators that art programs are one of the main factors that motivate children to come to school.

“If they don’t want to come to school, you’re never going to get them,” she says. “So why wouldn’t you do that thing that makes them want to come to school, that also teaches them these really great skills?”

Michelle Schroeder, the president of the New York State Art Teachers Association and a high school animation teacher, seconds this. She says the arts allow students an opportunity to have fun throughout the day without having to worry so much about the stressors of other content areas. And this is backed by research, too — some studies have shown that the arts, from drama to dance, can have therapeutic effects.

“It’s that part of their day where they can have fun and just play with materials, and really not have to worry about the answers on their tests,” Schroeder says.

[READ: How to Instill a ‘Growth Mindset’ in Kids.]

Develop Social-Emotional and Interpersonal Skills

Participating in arts programs — particularly those that focus on more collaborative forms like theater and music — is a good way for students to sharpen their communication and social-emotional skills, experts say.

Camille Farrington, managing director and senior research associate at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, says art classes offer students opportunities to interact with their fellow students in a constructive and creative manner, a process that fuels their social and emotional development. For example, one study published in the Journal of Primary Prevention found that students in low-income schools who participated in an after-school dance program tended to experience heightened self-esteem and social skills.

Building those skills is more important than ever after the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Denise Grail Brandenburg, arts education specialist and team lead at the National Endowment for the Arts. “Arts education can support the social and emotional learning needs of students,” Brandenburg wrote in an email, “including helping students learn to manage their emotions and have compassion for others.”

Kasper also says that even with somewhat solitary artistic endeavors like painting or drawing, the act of perfecting one’s technique allows students to come up with creative ways to express and communicate their viewpoints.

“You teach the fundamentals of making the art … — your instrument, your voice, your body in motion, painting, sculpture, whatever it is — so that students can then take those skills and use them to communicate more effectively,” she says.

[READ: How Schools Incorporate Social-Emotional Learning]

Enrich Their Experiences

Human beings have practiced various art forms to express themselves since the dawn of their existence.

“Art immensely improves and enriches the lives of young people,” Farrington says. “It’s a core part of being a human being and human history and culture.”

For kids in low-income neighborhoods, where residents may have less access to art and cultural resources that can improve quality of life, school arts programs are especially important. An analysis from the National Endowment for the Arts, drawing on data from four longitudinal studies, found that students with high levels of arts involvement had more positive outcomes in a variety of areas, from high school graduation rates to civic participation.

Just like after-school sports programs allow students to learn skills not necessarily taught in the classroom, like teamwork and self-discipline, Farrington says the arts provide students with broad opportunities for growth outside of strictly academic pursuits.

“One of the things that’s really critical to young people of all ages … is the opportunity to explore a wide variety of different kinds of activities,” Farrington says. “Some of them are going to gravitate to one thing, and some are going to gravitate to another thing, but they can’t gravitate to them if they’ve never experienced them.”

Handle Constructive Criticism

Unlike many other school subjects, in which questions often have one specific answer, the arts allow for students to come up with a nearly unlimited variety of final products. This means that art teachers often give feedback a little bit differently, particularly with older students.

“They’re teaching something and then immediately asking students to demonstrate that skill in a really authentic way, which is different from going to teach something and three months later giving students a test,” Kasper says.

Schroeder says that art teachers typically provide their students with highly individualized, constructive criticism. This allows students to learn how to gracefully receive a critique and respond to it, she says, explaining how and why they developed the artwork that they did.

“In so much of their careers and their future, people are either going to criticize or they’re going to suggest improvements, and our students need to become comfortable with receiving feedback from other people,” she says. “So many experiences that they’ll have in an art classroom give them the opportunity to feel what it’s like to have someone question them. There’s so much dialogue that happens in the classroom.”

[READ: What is a Waldorf School?]

Bolster Academic Achievement

While Farrington says that making art for art’s sake ought to be sufficient justification for school arts programs, research has also shown that arts education can lead to academic gains.

For example, a 2005 study on the impact of a comprehensive arts curriculum in Columbus, Ohio, public schools found that students with the arts program scored higher on statewide tests in math, science and citizenship than students from control schools. This effect was even greater for students from low-income schools. In the NEA analysis, socially and economically disadvantaged children with significant arts education had better academic outcomes — including higher grades and test scores and higher rates of graduation and college enrollment — than their peers without arts involvement.

Different disciplines also provide their own specific cognitive benefits — for example, participating in dance has been shown to sharpen young children’s spatial awareness, while making music can help students develop their working memory.

Improve Focus

In addition to the specific benefits of each individual art practice, Kasper says that across the board, the arts are a good way for students to learn impulse control.

Intuitively, it makes sense that the act of concentrating in order to perfect one’s craft can help an individual develop the ability to focus closely on other things as well. Research has shown that training in the arts also helps students hone their ability to pay closer attention and practice self-control. In 2009, researchers at the Dana Foundation, which funds neuroscience research and programming, posited based on multiple studies that training in the arts stimulates and strengthens the brain’s attention system.

“That’s something that I think we forget that kids have to learn,” Kasper says.

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