Jennifer Drake Ph. D.
Jennifer Drake Ph. D.
Assistant Professor of Psychology
Brooklyn College

Bolstering Emotional Regulation Through Art

What role do the arts (and specifically drawing) play in our kids’ emotional lives? And how can drawing improve kids’ moods and distract them from disappointing events? Here, Jennifer Drake, a developmental psychologist with expertise in the arts, explores these questions and explains how (and why) the simple act of drawing can make a difference. For more on how the arts bolster kids’ emotions, read this article [link] by Michaela Herr, an art therapist in York, Pennsylvania.

Young children are natural artists. They love to pretend, dance, sing, and create images on paper. Give a child paper and markers, and that child is likely to become absorbed in the act of drawing.

Drawing is a universal activity found in all cultures, even when the child only has dirt and a stick to use. When drawing, children are engrossed, focused, engaged, and yet, at the same time, playful. Young children do not care whether their drawings are realistic—they may paint the sky green and the grass blue. Their images are charming, often likened to works by 20th-century non-realistic artists.

Professional artists have often talked about art as a form of therapy, something they must do to survive. The painter Cezanne spoke about painting as his “salvation.” We often think of art making as a way to express and thereby work out our demons.

What effect does drawing have on a young child’s emotional life? Does drawing serve as a way for kids to vent their emotions and thereby work out conflicts and tensions, or does it serve as a form of escape into an imaginary world?

I have examined these questions in a series of studies. I begin these studies by inducing a sad mood in children by asking them to think of a time when they felt really disappointed about something. I make sure that this sad mood induction has worked by asking children to rate their mood: always, their mood becomes more negative after recalling the disappointing event. I then ask children to make a drawing—and instruct half of them to make a drawing about the disappointing event they remembered. Here, drawing allows the child to vent (express) his/her negative feelings.

The others are asked to make a drawing entirely unrelated to the disappointing event (e.g., they might be asked to draw a building). Here, drawing distracts the child from thinking about the disappointing event.

Is venting or distraction more effective in improving a child’s mood? You may expect that drawing the disappointing event would improve mood because the child’s emotions are expressed and therefore released. Surprisingly, I’ve found that when children use drawing as a form of distraction (drawing the building) rather than venting (drawing the disappointing event), their mood improves more.

Why might this be? When children draw the building, they shift their attention from the disappointing event, and this helps them feel better. It turns out that when children copy someone else’s drawing rather than create their own, they do not reap the same emotional benefits. Copying shapes does not improve mood as much as inventing a drawing. In fact, it is the act of creating something that makes children feel better.

There is considerable controversy about how much emphasis our schools should place on the arts in the curriculum. With the focus today on testing and basic literacies, the arts do not have much of a presence. But this is short-sighted. It is well-established that academic performance is at its best when a child is in a positive mood. And we now know that the arts can be used to improve a child’s mood.

Here are two powerful reasons why the arts should be included in the school day: the arts improve emotional functioning and, in doing so, can improve academic performance.

Learn More

Jennifer Drake & Ellen Winner, “How Children Use Drawing to Regulate Their Emotions,” Cognition & Emotion

Mariko Nobori, “How the Arts Unlock the Door to Learning,” Edutopia

“What is Arts Integration?” The Kennedy Center

“Learning, Arts, and the Brain: The Dana Consortium Report,” The Dana Foundation

“The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education,” Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education