Arts Education and Youth Identity – Psychology Today

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Adolescence is a critical period of development characterized by numerous challenges and transitions. During this time, young individuals are susceptible to various mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Arts education can serve as a powerful preventive tool to mitigate potential negative mental health outcomes among adolescents. Consistent engagement with the arts can improve academic performance, relationships, and the overall well-being of young individuals, made even more impactful during such a vulnerable time.
Research has consistently shown that arts education positively influences academic performance among adolescents. Over twenty years ago, the Champions of Change (1999) report found that students engaged in the arts outperform their peers in virtually every measure, including math and reading scores.
Moreover, low-income students, who often face additional barriers, benefit the most from arts programming, as it narrows the achievement gap. This suggests that arts education can be an effective means of enhancing cognitive skills, critical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and overall academic engagement among adolescents.
Engagement in arts education has been linked to the development of positive peer and adult relationships. Through collaborative projects, group performances, and shared experiences, adolescents involved in arts programs cultivate social skills, empathy, and teamwork.
The arts provide a platform for self-expression, enabling young individuals to communicate their thoughts and emotions effectively. Arts education serves as a protective factor—a way to build resilience—for at-risk adolescents, who face various challenges.
Arts programming has been shown to increase attendance and graduation rates, with many at-risk teens citing arts classes as the primary reason for their continued school attendance. By fostering a sense of belonging and community, arts education creates a supportive environment that can contribute to the prevention of poor mental health outcomes.
Arts education plays a crucial role in shaping adolescents’ self-concept and emotional well-being. As a researcher and advocate for the arts in education, Olivia Cosío shares that,
A hallmark of adolescence is identity development and, while that sounds like a personal journey of self-discovery, adolescents actually discover who they are by how others respond to them. We also know that historically marginalized students can face identity-based bullying and discrimination both in and out of school. The arts serve as a protective factor against negative self-concept, allowing students to reflect and define themselves, and by enabling them to feel successful in multiple ways, rather than offering a single right and wrong answer.
By engaging in artistic activities, young individuals develop a sense of identity and explore their talents and interests. The process of artistic creation allows adolescents to express their emotions, thoughts, and experiences, fostering self-reflection and personal growth.
This self-exploration, combined with positive feedback and recognition from teachers and peers, can boost self-esteem and self-confidence. These factors contribute to better mental health outcomes and act as protective factors against the development of psychological distress.
Adolescents, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds, can significantly benefit from arts education. Research indicates that engaging in arts education enhances the probability of pursuing higher education, participating in volunteer work, and involving oneself in civic activities like voting (Stensrud, 2017). By exposing young individuals to diverse artistic expressions, cultures, and viewpoints, arts education enriches their perspectives and fosters an enduring admiration for creative endeavors.
Furthermore, arts education serves as a platform for adolescents to explore potential career paths and cultivate practical skills within the realm of creative industries. By nurturing creativity, fostering innovation, and encouraging critical thinking, arts education equips young individuals with essential tools for navigating an ever-changing world.
Cosío advocates that the advantages of arts education extend beyond the academic sphere. It offers students avenues for “positive social interactions, self-exploration, community engagement, and academic accomplishments.”
It’s important to acknowledge that there is still progress to be made in integrating the arts into educational curricula on par with other vital components. While advocating for grand productions is encouraged, it’s worth noting that arts integration can also take the form of a student-curated playlist, a unit focused on poetry writing, or innovative methods of teaching subjects like math through creative means.
Arts education is a powerful preventative tool that can significantly contribute to positive mental health outcomes among adolescents. Cosío emphasizes that,
Supporting students with and through the arts could happen as soon as tomorrow with the array of free resources available. The arts are not a distraction from student’s wellness and achievement—they are an important solution.
Through its impact on academic performance, relationships, self-concept, and long-term opportunities, arts education provides a holistic approach to fostering the well-being of young individuals. Creating art has a remarkable impact on at-risk adolescents.
By incorporating arts programs into the educational curriculum, policymakers, educators, and parents can help create an environment that supports the emotional and psychological growth of adolescents, setting them on a path toward a healthier and more fulfilling future, and sustaining the well-being of humanity.
Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning (1999). Arts Education Partnership. Retrieved from
Shields, C. (2001). A Portrait of the At-Risk Student: Implications for School Counselors. Professional School Counseling, 4(5), 363-370.
Stensrud, R. (2017). Arts Education as an Antidote for At-Risk Students: A Review of the Literature. Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education, 34, 13-29.
Renate Tsuyako Rohlfing is active as a pianist and music therapist. She is passionate about researching the impact of music on public health and is an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music.
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As the lines between real and fake blur, Americans increasingly chase the idea of authenticity. The first step may be to consider self-knowledge, truthfulness, and other building blocks on the road to personal growth.


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