PsycholARTSical: Psyched about the arts/Arts for At-Risk Students

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Arts for At-Risk Students - (Megan, Liz, Alex, Suzane, Alison D)

What is an "At Risk" Student?'

There are varying ideas as to what an at-risk student is. Some suggest that an at-risk student is simply a student who is danger of 1) low academic achievement; or 2) dropping out of school. However, this over simplification leads to dissent about whether or not those two criteria are actually worth the worry and that students who are defined as at-risk may still have successful and fulfilling lives. Edward Rozycki writes in his article Identifying the "at-Risk" Student: What is the Concern?:

Does low academic achievement in the lower grades, in high school, even, condemn one to a life of despair and ruin? I would think not. People mature at different rates and may not be able to take advantage of school offerings until well past their teen years. This is why community colleges have grown up. This is also why many traditional universities have special admissions programs. To pretend that life is over if high achievement has not happened before age 18, is to approach hysteria.

What about "dropping out" of high school? One of the things researchers complain constantly about is the vagueness of the term "dropout." A student who "drops out" of a given high school may enroll in another. The statistics may not be adjusted to reflect this. Or she may complete a GED and go on to college through special admissions. Or she may go to community college, make up her high school work and go on to a four-year program. Or she (or he) may get a technical certificate, get a job in industry and continue her education in the corporate world.

This definition relies heavily on statistics and grades. Rozycki does not agree that one can only look at 'at-risk' students as being those who are in danger of getting 'bad grades' of dropping out and believes that the definition of 'at-risk' needs to be broadened.

In his book Practical Classroom Strategies, Michael Tudor gives a much better description of an at-risk student. He states that:

The term 'At-Risk' has been used to describe a population of students who are experiencing an unsuccessful education. These students have not acquired the skills which society thinks is necessary to transfer to post secondary education or even to join the work force. At riskness can cover problems ranging from incomplete homework and skipping classes to dropping, drug addiction, and suicide.

This definition not only describes students at-risk for problems in school but also students who will be at-risk for having problems in life. This definition supports the need to identify and aid those students who are at-risk in our school systems so that they can move on to post-secondary destinations with success.

How does a student become at-risk?

There are several factors that might play a role in creating an at-risk student.

a. Living in high-growth areas

b. Living in unstable school districts

c. Being a member of a low-income family

d. Having low academic skills (though not necessarily low intelligence);

e. Having parents who are not high school graduates

f. Speaking English as a second language

g. Being single-parent children

h. Having negative self-perceptions; being bored and alienated; having low self-esteem

i. Pursuing alternatives; males tend to seek paid work as an alternative; females leave to have children or get married

j. Mental/physical illness

h. Not liking one's teacher or classmates (uncomfortable in the classroom/poor learning environment)

How to Identify an "At-Risk" Student

To help at-risk students, a school has to first identify those students who are at-risk and exactly where they need help in order to get them to become successful. To do this, you cannot only look at a students grades or attendance, although those are both helpful factors in the identification of at-risk students. Some students may only find themselves at-risk in one subject area but doing perfectly well in another or a student may be doing well academically but be at-risk of dropping out due to depression or to find work to help a low income family.

The Program - ArtSmarts

Assumptions that Underpin the Program

The ArtsSmarts program is often implemented in schools with a history of poor achievement and attendance, behavior problems, low parental involvement, and high staff turn-over. The program operates on the assumption that integrating arts into the curriculum and into the classroom will improve the school experience for students, resulting in greater engagement of students in school. Arts educators often contend that the arts and cross-curricular learning help students develop positive attitude toward school and others (less behaviour problems, more participation, and improved attendance); a sense of community and belonging; thinking skills, including improved comprehension, interpretation, and problem solving abilities; and a better self-concept of themselves as students because of their achievements in the arts, a strong work ethic (persisting in the face of difficulties).

Today we recognize that not all students learn well through traditional methods: learning through the arts allows teachers to reach out to multiple intelligences by utilizing various different instructional strategies. The arts are fun and make students feel good about themselves: in a supportive, creative classroom, the arts encourage enthusiasm, curiosity, interest in the learning, and build self-esteem. Additionally, integrative activities help create a positive, emotionally connected learning environment and encourage the cultivation of closer relations between students and their teacher. Because students are more engaged in their learning and they may begin to experience small success, which helps them develop self-esteem, leading them to work harder and taking pride in their work.

Psychological Theories seen in the Program

The most important theories seen in the ArtSmarts program are motivational theories. This program is designed largely to improve students' motivation to study a variety of academic subjects by incorporating arts and creative tasks into these subjects. This program gives students ownership of their artistic projects, such as murals or maps, and allows them to personalize their subject knowledge and make it relevent to their lives. This is an example of how the ArtSmarts program increases intrinsic motivation in students. Students are motivated by their desire to succeed and their pride in their own work, rather than extrinsic factors such as grades or material rewards.

This program also relates to the Humanistic view of motivation, which emphasizes personal freedom, choice, self-determination and striving for personal growth. This program allows students to learn science, math, geography and other subjects in a way that allows them to make artistic choices, challenge themselves and grow through seeing their project through to completion. This program also builds self-esteem and self-worth and associates these with learning and school. Students begin to feel good about their school work and associate their positive feelings of self-esteem with learning, perhaps for the first time!

ArtSmarts also relates to the sociocultural views of motivation, which states that people engage in activities to devlop knowledge as they maintain their identities and interpersonal relations within a community. In other words, students learn how to be students through watching their peers and teachers. In this case students also learn how to be creative through watching community artists. They also witness these artists' learn through their work, providing lessons about life-long learning as well. Students improved self-efficacy through seeing others create tasks vicariously, thus improving their own performace or desire to complete similar activities, knowing they can be successful in this as well. Through watching community artists and their teachers participate successfully in these activities, students begin to find these artistic academic activities meaningful and worthwhile.

Finally, this program allows students to learn how to set goals. Students set goals about their individual works, creating mastery goals about mastering the artistic task set before them. Students also set social goals for interacting with their fellow artists on large projects. Many students will also set performance goals, to avoid looking stupid or inept in front of their peers, which will motivate them to put more effort into their school work.

Of all the psychological theories we have studied in class, this program is most strongly tied to motivation. Students in ArtSmarts find meaning in the curriculum through working on authentic, artistic tasks and find positive reinforcement for academic work. For some at-risk students this program may be the first time they receive this positive reinforcement in a school atmosphere, which may deter negative behaviour and increase their engagement in learning.

Support for the Program

In his studying of arts-based programs, Wahlstrom (2003) noted in that students who were not usually class leaders frequently took on leadership roles in the arts-integrated lessons, and children with disabilities of all types were more fully integrated into arts activities than other classroom activities. Standardized tests of creativity also showed more highly developed creativity in students who participated in an arts-based program (Caslan 22). In surveys of the ArtsSmarts program, teachers, students and artists all reported positive changes in student behaviour, including increased attendance, homework completion and engagement in class, and fewer behavioural problems. Improved self-esteem students demonstrated strong artistic skills, readily took extra work home and learned more than they normally would. Many teachers observed that normally disruptive students often become focused and produce excellent work in arts activities (Caslan 19).

ArtsSmart’s developed student questionnaires to explore four components (content, context, process and product, according to Karen Hume’s engagement model), and administered them to a large number of students who were being taught by an ArtsSmarts team. The results of the survey suggested that students felt that the activities involved in the ArtsSmarts program were challenging and beneficial. Students also indicated that they felt that through hard work they could be successful in all of the activities they were involved and that the activities motivated them to work harder and to feel proud of the work they had done. (ArtsSmarts, Deconstructing Engagement 9-16).

The majority of students (78% agreed, 18% disagreed, and 4% were missing) were proud of the work they did in ArtsSmarts; most of the students (81% agreed, 13% disagreed, and 6% were missing) said that they could do even the hardest work on the project if they tried; and over 85% believed that they learned a lot from the artist. More than 80% of students believed that they were thinking more than just doing easy work. (Deconstructing Engagement 13)

The majority of students (79% agreed, 16% disagreed, and 4% were missing) involved in the ArtsSmarts projects also believed that what they learned in the project could be used in other subjects. Almost 80% said that they would like to do an ArtsSmarts activity again, and most of them (68% agreed, 27% disagreed, and 5% were missing) said they worked harder on this project than any other project before. (Deconstructing Engagement 13)

Some problems with the Program

On the ArtSmarts website there are a variety of case studies from schools who have implemented the program. This site does a good job of documenting the program from its implementation to the aftermath. From these cases studies we will discuss the most common problems with the schools, seen in these schools.

Some problems with the program include: lack of support from parents, teachers and administrators, lack of teacher training in the arts and lack of measurable results in attendance and student behaviour. According to a variety of case studies published on the ArtSmarts website, the lack of support from parents stems from the belief that students should be focusing on math, science and literature rather than "wasting time" with the arts. Many teachers lack the necessary training to design and present curriculum material through artistic tasks, and many teachers in previous ArtSmarts schools became frustrated at incorporating the program into their schools. They wondered instead why they could not simply present the material to students in traditional, and in their opinion proven, ways. School administrators sometimes saw the programs as too expensive or cited a lack or resources as their reason for not supporting the program.

Finally, while most schools implemented the program as a way to increase standardized test scores, curb violence or improve attendance, not many obvious signs of improvement were seen in these areas. In some schools standardized test scores actually decreased, but in most they did not change drastically one way or the other. Though teachers reported increased motivation in their students attendence increased only 3-5% at most. Similarly, most schools reported that violence either remained the same as before the program or actually increased during the program.

Some ways to improve the program:

The most important thing to keep in mind when evaluating the effectiveness of the ArtSmarts program is that most of what the program accomplishes cannot be measured by standardized testing, attendence or incidents of bullying. Standardized tests are content based, and student success depends not only on the knowledge of the material, but also on the amount of sleep students have before the test, their comfort in the environment, nerves, what, if anything, the students have had to eat and other personal factors. Attendence and bullying also depend less on the material presented in the classroom and more on outside factors such as students' family lives, physical and mental health and personality. The biggest noted difference seen in incorporating the ArtSmarts program is the huge increase in student motivation, engagement and pride in their own work. Though these positive changes will increase students desire to put more effort into their school work. Many teachers in the case studies also mentioned an increased sense of community in their schools. These things cannot be easily measured in a concrete way, but are essential to the success of struggling, at-risk students. None of the indicators of success mentioned above can fully measure these things.

Secondly, many schools implemented this program expecting it to fix all the school's problems. Obviously students are diverse and there is no one solution to fix all social issues found in schools. Though the ArtSmarts program increases motivation, it cannot be expected to fix bullying and attendence issues in the course of a few months or years. This program offers one solution for these issues. Perhaps in order to help improve these issues we need to combine this approach with other solutions, rather than solely improving this program.

Below are some suggestions for improving the program:

  • Though ArtSmarts offers grants, schools may need to raise funds
  • This program works better in an area with many resources and artists close by. Perhaps technology such as video conferencing, email, webcams and even exchange programs could allow this program to be available for those in more remote communities.
  • More professional development opportunities are necessary for non-arts specialist teachers and should be provided and paid for by their schools professional development budgets. Arts specialist teachers could take the lead on these professional development sessions and collaborate to write reference guides, lesson plans or strategies for their fellow teachers.
  • A new ArtSmarts school could be paired with a more established ArtSmarts school, to allow for collaboration, resource sharing and an opportunity for teachers and administrators to learn from their mistakes.
  • The ArtSmarts program alone does not provide an all-purpose fix for all school problems. Perhaps this program could be combined with the implementation of peer-mentoring, counselling, leadership programs or community outreach programs, to offer more solutions for issues in attendance and bullying. These issues are complex, and no one solution works for every student.

The most important thing to note about this program is that it makes positive changes in every school it is implemented in, but in different ways. Each school is different, but each sees increases in motivation, excitement, engagement and community. This program does not market itself as a "quick-fix" to school issues. It is accountable and encourages outside investigation of the program to improve ArtSmarts.


ArtsSmarts at Caslan School: A Longitudinal Case Study. Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education, 2007.

Deconstructing Engagement: A First Generation Report on the ArtsSmarts Student Engagement Questionnaire. ArtsSmarts, 2007

Rozycki, Edward. Identifying the 'At-Risk' Student: What is the Concern?. 2004.

Tudor, Michael. Practical Classroom Strategies. Kondor Enterprises. Toronto. 2007.

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