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Arts-Based Programs and Arts Therapies for At-Risk, Justice-Involved, and Traumatized Youths

Literature Review: A product of the Model Programs Guide
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Research suggests that the arts can make a positive impact on youth development, from birth through adolescence. For example, studies have shown that engaging in various arts activities (such as singing, dancing, play acting, and doing crafts) at a young age is associated with positive social and emotional behaviors, including empathy, sharing, and mood control, and with improved numeracy skills and attention regulation (Menzer, 2015; Williams et al., 2015). Similarly, Bowen and Kisida (2019) found that art education reduces students’ disciplinary infractions and increases compassion for others. These outcomes are especially important with regard to delinquent acts, as disciplinary infractions are associated with an increased likelihood of later delinquency, and compassion is associated with a decreased likelihood of later delinquency (Robinson et al., 2007; Hirschfield, 2018; Gerlinger, 2020; Gómez, Pino, and Pino, 2020).

Relatedly, a series of longitudinal data analyses sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) examined the potential impact of arts engagement (such as taking arts courses or participating in a school band or choir) on education-related outcomes for children and teenagers from low-socioeconomic-status neighborhoods. The study found that, among children and teenagers from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, those with high levels of arts engagement showed more positive outcomes on indicators such as school grades, test scores, and high-school graduation rates, compared with youths with low levels of arts engagement (Catterall, Dumais, and Hampden–Thompson, 2012).

For at-risk and justice-involved youths, the arts can provide an outlet for addressing emotional and/or problem behaviors through opportunities to learn new skills, develop new talents, and express thoughts and ideas in creative and therapeutic ways (Ezell and Levy, 2003; Miner–Romanoff, 2016). Creating art can strengthen a youth’s problem-solving skills, autonomy, self-esteem, engagement, mood, sense of purpose, and social competence (Brewster, 2014; Miner–Romanoff, 2016; Wolf and Holochwost, 2016). Similarly, for youths dealing with trauma or victimization (including exposure to violence), the arts can help them cope with painful experiences by fostering resilience, allowing the youths to view themselves as survivors rather than as victims (Heise, 2014; van Westrhenen and Fritz, 2014).

This literature review explores research on arts-based programs and arts therapies. Programs were considered arts based if at least one of the main components was an arts-related activity, or if there was a deliberate use of arts in the program to bring about a change in behavior. This category includes standalone, arts-based interventions and programs incorporating the arts in combination with other approaches (such as mentoring).

The review concentrates on the following three populations: 1) at-risk youths, 2) justice-involved youths, and 3) traumatized youths.[1] These groups are defined as follows:

  • At-risk youths have risk factors (i.e., personality traits; characteristics of the environment; or conditions in the family, school, or community) that have been shown to increase their likelihood of engaging in delinquency and other problem behaviors (Murray and Farrington, 2010).
  • Justice-involved youths are those who are currently involved in the juvenile justice system (e.g., on probation, in diversion programs, in detention).
  • Traumatized youths are those considered traumatized, based on their personal experiences. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects” (2014, p. 11).

Finally, this review does not include arts-based or arts education programs aimed at the general youth population, as such programs typically do not focus on the therapeutic nature of art.

[1] Notably, at-risk youths, justice-involved youths, and traumatized youths are not mutually exclusive categories.

Last update: May 2021