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Youth programs in the arts can help prevent violent behaviours: professor

A summer camp program serving youth in east Scarborough—blocks from the site of a July 16 shooting that killed two and injured many times that—has the potential to save lives, says an associate professor of social work at the University of Windsor.

The DAREarts summer camp works with youths aged 9 to 19 years from schools in high-priority neighbourhoods, empowering them to make better life choices.

These sorts of programs have proven effective, says Robin Wright, who conducted the National Arts and Youth Demonstration Project (NAYDP) to assess the value of arts and culture in enriching the lives of at-risk youth. The study implemented after-school art programs with youth 9 to 15 years of age in low-income, multiculural and Aboriginal sites located Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg as well as the rural Ontario town of Tillsonburg.

The results from her study, compared with controls from the National Longitudinal Study on Children and Youth, indicated that “as a result of participating in a bi-weekly 90-minute arts program for nine consecutive months, these youth experienced an increase in confidence, interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills and the ability to connect to adults and positive role models, and a significant decrease in emotional problems,” Dr. Wright says.

The demonstration project differed in several important ways from most arts programs, says Wright, including the fact that the programming and transportation were offered free of charge, and that organizers worked hard to ensure instructors were caring individuals as well as skilled artists and educators.

“We could teach them research skills and organizational skills, but we couldn’t teach them dedication to children,” she says. “In order to keep these kids out of more difficult circumstances, we had to build a focus not only on their skill development, but on pro-social relationships with adults and younger children.”
She has just concluded a follow-up survey of the participants five years after the project’s end. She says the results point to an increase in pro-social behaviours like problem-solving and conflict resolution and decreased emotional problems like depression and anxiety.

“What we have been able to demonstrate is that this can act as a prevention model,” Wright says. “Now that we have evidence that these programs work, what are we going to do about it?”
She hopes to see support for larger-scale programs across the country.
“This approach cannot solve all the problems of the world; we need a multi-pronged approach,” she says. “This type of program, targeted at the greatest need, can help at-risk children build their aspirations for the future.”
And that, Wright says, offers benefits for everyone: “We’re meeting our obligations as a society when we address the needs of those who do not have access to these resources.”

The original demonstration project was funded by the Samuel & Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation; the Department of Justice’s National Crime Prevention Strategy; the Department of Canadian Heritage; the Ontario Ministry of Culture; the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and supported by the Canadian Initiative on Social Statistics—a joint initiative of Statistics Canada, SSHRC and Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Wright invites anyone interested in further information to contact her at rwright@uwindsor.ca.

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