Can arts education help children heal from the trauma of the pandemic?

Credit: Alison Yin for EdSource Today

California has long been famous for its creativity, the engine of everything from the entertainment industry to the technology sector. But decades of budget cuts and a laser focus on core subjects have caused public schools across the state to cut arts education to naught over the years.

Today, two years of trauma during a pandemic that has claimed more than a million lives and the new horrors of a series of mass shootings, experts say, underscore the urgent need for more avenues of social-emotional learning in schools. This is one of the main reasons why former Unified Superintendent of Los Angeles Austin Beutner, supported by many educators and artists, is advocating a mandate to restore arts and music education to public schools, as a way to help children cope with their feelings of growing up in a time of tragedy.

“Talk to any social worker, the first thing they do with a traumatized child is ask them to draw a picture,” said Beutner, who quit after three years at LAUSD. “The arts are a key part of the therapeutic process.”

Once a classic value in a comprehensive education, the arts have long been washed out in favor of math and science. But the pandemic has highlighted the need to help children deal with trauma and find ways to heal, experts say.

“This could be the moment, a crisis can become an opportunity,” said Beutner, who guided the nation’s second-largest school district through the worst of the pandemic. “The state has a windfall, why not use some of it to restore some of what we lost?”

That’s why Beutner strives to bring the arts back, putting an initiative on the November election this would require the state to spend an additional $800 million to $1 billion each year from its overflowing general fund for arts and music education. That’s almost four times the total budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. His campaign has been successful so far, garnering a million signatures in less than 90 days, more than needed to be on the ballot.

Arts education also got a boost when Governor Gavin Newsom earmarked $1 billion for after-school enrichment programs as part of his expanded learning opportunities program for the school year. to come, pending budget negotiations with the Legislative Assembly. “We believe in STEAM, not STEM,” Newsom said. “It’s the ‘A’ that’s missing, the arts and the music.”

Can the arts help children recover from deep pandemic trauma? Can creativity and self-expression stimulate social-emotional learning at a time when mental health is at risk? Beutner, for his part, sees artistic education as a way out of the alienation of the last years.

“If we can bring the arts back into the classroom, it can make a huge difference,” said Beutner, who had a personal revelation when he discovered the cello in fifth grade. “It’s a way out of pandemic isolation, a way to connect with other people and gain a sense of belonging.”

As the youth mental health crisis escalating into a national emergency, with the Texas school shooting making headlines, child suicides on the rise and the pandemic still shaking up much of society, there is a resurgence of interest in finding ways to improve student well-being in the midst of chaos.

Two years of trauma have marked us all. The pandemic has certainly been the most traumatic collective event of our lives, experts say, giving rise to a mental health crisis in which children may be among the most vulnerable. The excruciating uncertainties of life today have left many children feeling raw and anxious. Very young children may not even remember a time before the pandemic.

“Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we find creative ways to help children heal,” said Nora Zamora, executive director of social and emotional learning for the Alameda County Office of Education. “Trauma-focused and healing approaches that meet the needs of students, as well as youth-serving staff, are not only innovative, they are essential in creating the conditions necessary to deal with pandemic trauma.

“You have to meet the kids where they are,” said Beutner, who sees the arts as a powerful educational tool. “It’s an existential challenge. The arts help engage children. Whatever you teach, you must first make it interesting. If you’re looking at arts, music, or animation, you can incorporate them into numeracy and literacy.

If you want to educate the whole child, you need to tap into their socio-emotional core and let them speak out, experts say. Giving young people the opportunity to express everything can help reduce stress and increase self-esteem, thus paving the way for learning.

The arts can be a safe haven for children to deal with big emotions, to channel fears and frustrations into acts of creativity. Under the initiative, school leaders would choose what to spend the money on, deciding which art activity, from dance and drawing to animation, best meets the needs of their students.

“So many of our children have struggled with mental health issues during this pandemic,” said singer Katy Perry, one of the celebrities who have campaigned for the initiative. “Arts and music education plays a vital role in supporting the mental health of young people. Now more than ever, it is important that we give all children access to this essential resource. »

Experts say a sense of connection to the past can help ground young people through turbulent times, helping them feel more resilient even when the social contract seems increasingly strained. The long, hard grind of chronic uncertainty has been linked to increased anxiety and depression, research suggestsand post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The arts can connect students to a world – past, present and future – full of history, innovation, expression, representation, beauty, power and inspiration,” said Chad Jones, Director executive of the San Francisco Arts Education Project. “All of these things have always been important to educating the whole person, but through the pandemic it seems all the more important to find ways to truly engage with students and make them feel connected to something. something outside of themselves.”

Musician/producer Quincy Jones, also among the broad coalition of artists backing the proposal, said the music saved his life. This is not hyperbole, experts suggest. Art can be an oasis for children dealing with a myriad of emotional upheavals.

“There are countless examples of troubled souls finding a way through their tragedy or trauma by turning their energies into something creative,” said Rush Rehm, professor of classics at Stanford. “Working and thinking creatively offers more than an outlet. It allows you to play, to get out of the normal or to escape the traumatic.

Another proponent, actress Issa Rae, star of HBO’s “Insecure,” sees arts education as a way to champion fairness in an increasingly unequal society. Schools that serve low-income students, especially students of color, are much less likely to have strong arts programs than more affluent schools, experts say. According to Beutner, only 1 in 5 public schools have a dedicated art teacher.

Rae sees this initiative as a way to reach children who lack the exposure to arts and culture that wealthy families often take for granted. Enrichment should not be limited to those who can afford it, some say, especially at a time when the gap between haves and have-nots has never been wider. Finding their voice can be a game-changer for children who don’t feel heard.

“This ballot measure will help define the promise of the next generation of storytellers by ensuring that all California students receive the high-quality arts and music education they deserve,” Rae said. “This will particularly benefit students from communities of color, who often experience a lack of access and equity in access to arts and music education.”

The effort to restore arts and music education to a more prominent place in the school curriculum is long overdue, some say, and there’s no better time to do it than a time of surplus. unprecedented coupled with children in dire need of socio-emotional enrichment.

“There has never been a more important and relevant time for the arts,” said Julie Baker, executive director of the California Arts Advocates, “to go to work to heal and bring empathy, hope and joy to a nation divided and recovering from the double trauma of systemic racism and a global pandemic.

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