Students in poor communities are among the most vulnerable to social and behavioral problems, often caused by environmental stress. These same kids often lack adequate access to emotional health care, and their schools don’t typically have the resources to offer individual counseling.
What’s more, in many poor communities, researchers say, psychological counseling often carries a stigma — something for “crazy” people — and can be viewed with suspicion, as a gateway to potential legal trouble. (More on Time.com: Straight As in High School May Mean Better Health Later in Life)
To help improve social and emotional behavior in disadvantaged students — who account for some 40% of children under 18 in the U.S. — Ping Ho, founder and director of the UCLArts and Healing Center, teamed up with some unlikely partners, the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) and drum-maker Remo Belli, to create an arts-based behavior therapy.
What the group put together was a 12-week program of counselor-led group drumming sessions. Drumming as therapy? “Group drumming is uniquely accessible and appeals to diverse groups,” says Ho. “We felt that drumming was ideal for social and emotional skill building. Students could emerge from the process of shared experience and would actually develop empathy, which is a central part of healing.”
Each weekly session took place at school, for 45 minutes following lunch. Kids in the program learned to drum in a call-and-response structure. They were also taught to repeat affirmations like “I am responsible. I do the right thing,” while drumming to a corresponding rhythm. In other exercises, students learned a “calm down mantra” to manage rising tempers. Each session, which included both drumming and counseling activities, focused on particular goals like managing anger, increasing self-acceptance, learning from others and encouraging positive behavior. (More on Time.com: The Tricky Politics of Tween Bullying)
The program involved 101 mostly Latino children in four 5th grade classes. Half of the students came from “intervention classrooms,” designed for special needs kids who had behavioral problems. The other half were students in standard classrooms, who served as controls. One intervention and one standard class each received the weekly drumming program, while the remaining two classes had unrelated programming.
The hope was that rhythmic drumming would be easy to teach, since it doesn’t require prior instrument knowledge, and that it would help students learn to focus on accompanying lessons, and improve attention and hyperactivity problems, while reducing social withdrawal, depression and cognitive difficulties.
Researchers also hoped to address symptoms of internalized distress, such as delinquent behavior outside school, substance abuse, aggression and violence, even if the behaviors didn’t necessarily disrupt the classroom environment. (More on Time.com: Is a Wandering Mind an Unhappy One?)
“Different cultural groups have different ways of expressing stress. Anxiety, depression, PTSD and somatizing [e.g. aches and pains] tend to manifest heavily in Latino youth,” said Ho. She added that these behavior problems can be particularly difficult for caregivers and physicians to identify as stress-related health problems.
Following the three-month drumming program, researchers analyzed data collected by teachers who filled out a standardized survey measuring students’ behavior in three categories: internalized, externalized and “total” problems. Behavior problems were reduced in both the intervention and standard classrooms, but the students’ overall behavioral profile improved more in the drumming group, with the rate of problems dropping some 111%. Across all types of problems, each drumming lesson was associated with significantly more improvement than a control lesson.
“We would have been happy with one [positive] outcome, so when the statistician kept reporting ‘withdrawal improved’ and then ‘depression improved’ and so on, it validated everything we believed,” Ho says.
Previous research has also shown that music therapy can have a positive behavioral effect: a 2007 study in Pharmacotherapy found that music therapy was an effective part of treatment for insomnia and sleep disorders. And some clinical trials have shown that music can help autistic children improve their language skills. (More on Time.com: And You Think Your Kids Are Expensive)
The drumming team plans to apply for a government grant to test their drumming therapy in a larger, more diverse sample. For NAMM, which funded the pilot study and lobbies for increased arts education funding, the research may also help politically. “We’re looking for a broad based foundation of research that helps guide our policy makers so that instead of looking at children as cogs in a factory where [the theory goes] ‘more math time increases math scores,’ we start educating the whole child,” says Joe Lamond, president and CEO of NAMM. “We want Congress to see that arts are not a thrill on the side, but a core part [of education], next to reading.”
He concedes that a nice side effect of increased arts funding would be an increase in the sale of musical instruments, which would please NAMM’s members. But he says his group’s interest in music-health research goes beyond that. Lamond likens the state of the field of music-health research to where the research on exercise and health was 50 years ago. “It’s taken a generation of research to understand that exercise is integral to human health, and we believe that in decades, we’ll look back at this time as a critical time when we understood that arts had a role in health too,” he says.