Why School Arts Programs Aren’t Enough

We all know the arts are good for kids.

After all, that’s why we fight to keep art, theater, and music programs in the schools (don’t we?!).artroom_575

The good news is that most schools have some arts programs. Unfortunately, these programs aren’t really structured to best reap the benefits of the arts. To give your children the rich social and cognitive benefits of the arts, you need to do things outside of school.


While enrichment activities tend to be considered nice additions to quality academic programs, neurologists Eric Larsen believes activities like art, music, and chess have the power to reshape the brain. Good enrichment programming develops what Larsen has termed the Academic Operating System, encompassing a cluster of skills including delayed gratification, sensory processing, sustained attention, short-term and working memory, sequencing, and perseverance. Investing in the development of these traits should help students grow across all subjects and set them up for long-term success.

Sounds great, right. But here’s the problem: it takes consistent practice to really hardwire these skills. So the model most schools use—rotating on a weekly basis between 45-minute sessions of art, music, technology, gym, and other enrichment activities—doesn’t really produce the enrichment effect. Rather than developing skills, this type of infrequent practice tends to highlight the talents of a few students while leaving the rest of the class bored and frustrated.

Let me be clear: this is not the teacher’s fault! It is just how things are structured. Arts teachers, particularly at the primary school level, simply do not have frequent enough contact with students to develop any long-term skills. 

The Times Are-(not)-a-Changin’


While many are hopeful that this situation will be different with the implementation of the Every Child Achieves Act, which names music and the arts core subjects, there is little reason to think significant change is coming. The pressure on teachers and administrators to demonstrate big gains on math and reading tests remains high. Additionally, under the current model of education, if the arts are treated as “core subjects” it will most likely mean the adoption of uniform standards and testing, not necessarily more frequent contact with students.


Ways You Can Give Your Child Meaningful Enrichment

So if you can’t count on the schools to give your child a meaningful enrichment program, what can you do? While the temptation would be to run out and sign up for weekly music or art classes, without frequent practice (i.e. more than once a week), these classes won’t make a huge difference. A more effective strategy would look like this:

  • pianohandWith your child, pick an arts related skill they would like to develop, drawing, painting, playing an instrument, etc.
  • Look online for resources for beginner’s (Awesome Guitar for Kids would be a great place to start)
  • Set-aside four or five 15-minute time windows a week for practice
  • Have your child commit to these times. The conversation goes a little like this: “I know this is something you want to do. But in order to do it, you will need to work at it, even when it is hard or you don’t feel like doing it. Are you willing to commit to practicing during these times for the next six weeks, so you can be better at/learn to play guitar/draw monsters, etc?”
  • Once your child has committed, you can hold them accountable; remember there is a limited time frame. The script is something like, “You committed to practice during these times for these six weeks. We knew there would be some hard time, but that is why you needed to commit to it. I want to help you honor your commitment, even when it is hard.”
  • Take a picture or video of them during the first few days of practice. Then take another one at the end of the period. Point out and celebrate just how much they have improved!
  • At the end of one six-week cycle have them decide if they want to continue or try something new. Then make the same arrangement.

You will be amazed how much progress your child can make with consistent practice over this period of time. Not only will your child have a better handle on the foundational skills of the discipline they are learning, they will start reaping the cognitive benefits of true enrichment.

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