Arts and Culture as a Compelling Strategy to Promote the Most Vulnerable Children’s Healthy Development

By: Paul Dworkin, MD

Our evolving conceptualization of critical components of the comprehensive system necessary to promote children’s healthy development includes Arts and Culture.

To my mind, a prime example of this “petal” in our ubiquitous “flower diagram” has been a special program of the Artists Collective offered to children affected by sickle cell disease. The Artists Collective is a Hartford treasure, a nationally renowned interdisciplinary arts and cultural institution serving the Greater Hartford area.

Pediatrician Lee Pachter, DO, a former member of our faculty who also served on the Collective’s Board, founded the program to provide an important opportunity for children’s physical activity, social interactions, and self-esteem. Indeed, the program undermined stereotypical and ill-founded views on the limited capacity of children with sickle cell disease by showcasing their potential and talents.

I recently learned of yet another poignant example of how the arts may serve to directly promote the healthy development of vulnerable children at risk for poor outcomes as a consequence of exposure to strikingly adverse social determinants of health. A presentation by Margaret Martin, DrPH, MPH, the founder and director of the Harmony Project of America, at the recently convened Annual Meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Baltimore offered an extraordinary example of how music can promote healthy growth and development in children and communities.

The Harmony Project is a research-based, public health intervention that serves 2,000 students across an area of over 120 square miles in the Los Angeles community, including such low-income, high crime neighborhoods as Compton and Watts, and is currently operating in nine regions across seven states. It is L.A.’s largest music education non-profit. The project provides instruments, lessons, participation in orchestras and concerts, as well as field trips, progress check-ins, family support, and even college scholarships.

Dr. Martin, a doctor of public health, offered a compelling account of the impact of the Harmony Project in exemplary, TED-style talk fashion. Her presentation was impactful for many reasons. First and foremost, the results from research on the efficacy of the approach are stunning! Greater than 90 percent of Harmony Project high school seniors with at least three years participation in five to 12 hours per week of music mentoring have gone on to college! More than one-third pursue majors in STEM and two Harmony Project alumni have won Fulbright Awards. In an accompanying presentation, neuroscientist Nina Kraus of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab showed that intensive music training significantly improves cognitive function and auditory precision in disadvantaged children, leading to improved language processing and reading.

In addition to these remarkable results, I was also thrilled to hear the speakers validate important concepts that we embrace in our work to support families in promoting children’s optimal healthy development. Examples include adopting a strength-based approach; a focus on social determinants; designing innovations to be replicable, scalable, and sustainable; building cost-sharing, cross-sector partnerships; focusing on both proximate measures and long-term outcomes; as well as achieving cost savings (e.g., through such outcomes as decreased school dropout rates).

Results from the Harmony Project illustrate the critical contributions of arts programs. Ironically, despite their impact, such interventions are typically the first to be targeted for elimination during budget crises, especially within disadvantaged, underserved school districts. Such programs should not be viewed as frivolous or extraneous, but rather as critically important, evidence-based interventions that demand scaling and sustainability for impact. We must continue to strive for an “all sectors in” approach to promoting children’s healthy development.

Paul Dworkin, MD, is the executive vice president for community child health at Connecticut Children’s, the director of the Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health and the founding director of the Help Me Grow® National Center. Dr. Dworkin is also a professor of pediatrics at the UConn School of Medicine.  Learn more »

Image courtesy of The Artists Collective

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