Cady De Camara’s Summer Research Project

 In The CAPE Blog

This past summer we had two CAPE Interns, Cady De Camara, and Sonia Peters, who published independent projects that detail their research interests, using data collected from class visits and discussions with teachers and artists.

Cady de Camara is currently completing her bachelor’s in neuroscience and Science in Human Culture at Northwestern University and today we’re excited to share her summer research project.

As students prepare to enter another year of academic uncertainty relating to in-person, hybrid, and remote learning, many K-12 students are facing more depression, anxiety, and other mental illness than before the Covid-19 pandemic. Continuing to support, and further introducing, arts education in elementary, middle, and high schools could have benefits for students’ emotional wellness as we continue to move through the pandemic and its effects. 


The Covid-19 pandemic has created a landscape for education that has not been seen before. Even before the pandemic, of children ages 3 to 17, 8% had an anxiety disorder, 4% had a depressive disorder and 9% had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), numbers that have been on the rise for the past decade (Panchal, Kamal, Cox, Garfield & Chidambaram, 2021). The pandemic has not only exacerbated existing mental health conditions for children but also increased loneliness, isolation, and a feeling of disconnectedness from peers which are known risk factors for poor mental health. Private insurance data shows that while overall claims have decreased for children between the ages of 13 and 18, there has been a sharp increase in the number of mental health claims in that same population. Younger children, between the ages of 5 and 12, are showing increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, and ADHD, with worse overall mental health reported by parents for children learning remotely rather than in person. Additionally, these poor mental health outcomes are more likely to affect BIPOC children and LGBTQ+ youth (Panchal et al, 2021). 

While there are many tools that educators can use to help buffer poorer emotional wellness in their students, CAPE and its programming offer teachers and students the benefits that a strong arts education has been proven to provide to students with poorer mental health and wellness. Arts education can increase students’ mental wellness and increase traits such as empathy and self-esteem.

With many children showing more signs of depression, anxiety, and other mental health diagnoses during the Covid-19 pandemic and remote learning, maintaining and incorporating art in the classroom will be increasingly beneficial to students, teachers, and administrators. Several models for incorporating art into the classroom, including an empathy-based model and art therapy, already aligned with many aspects of the CAPE model, and many teachers and teaching artist pairs have already completed projects that use big themes associated with these two other educational models.


Expressive art in schools has tangible benefits for mental health, even if, like CAPE the model, it is not explicitly therapeutic. Some art forms with proven benefits include visual arts such as drawing, music, dance and drama. Most of the mechanisms behind these benefits remain unknown. 

  • Visual arts allow students to use tangible symbols to express their experiences, emotions, and thoughts. Drawing has been known to decrease depression and anxiety. Visual arts are also adaptive, making them accessible and modifiable for the neurodivergent population and those with physical disabilities (Degges-White, 2020). 
  • Music can have a curative effect and relieve symptoms of mental disorders (Degges-White, 2020). In particular, music can relieve stress in students at risk for emotional/behavioral disorders. Research studies have shown that music can also help re-center students in the classroom through mood manipulation. Children who show a poorer mood baseline however are less susceptible to short-term mood manipulation through music (Giles, Cogan & Cox, 1991). 
  • Dance and movement give students the chance to express themselves, which can be particularly beneficial to introverted students, and process emotions through a mind/body connection. Dance can reduce physical pain and improve general well-being (Degges-White, 2020).
  • Drama allows for storytelling, dramatic improvisation, puppetry, enactment, and role play. For students who might be prone to misconduct or have a conduct disorder, drama can be beneficial as it allows students to try out new behaviors in a safer manner or replay a situation they faced but try a new approach. One challenge with drama in regards to promoting wellness is that it requires children to distinguish between reality and fantasy which can be difficult with younger children (Degges-White, 2020). 

All of these expressive arts are available to students through current CAPE programming, and something that is stressed is giving students the opportunity to find which art form resonates the most with them, particularly when using art to improve mental health (Degges-White, 2020; Conradty, Sotiriou & Bogner, 2020).*

While quantitative data shows tangible benefits to mental health, there are qualitative models that give insight into the ways in which arts education can best be integrated into schools, and the ways in which CAPE work in classrooms is already intertwined with these models. 

One model of arts integration is the empathy-based model. Originally developed by South Korean researchers, this model is meant to promote personal growth by introducing the theme of empathy into each lesson in the curriculum. Empathy is correlated with prosocial behavior, reduced aggression, and reduced social prejudice. The purpose of intertwining empathy training into each lesson is to allow students to gain a greater understanding of their own identity, their connectedness to others, and how each person’s identity shapes their social understanding and perspective.

So while studying different art topics, such as dreams and surrealism in the class-tested in this particular research, they are also introduced to different skills that lead to empathy, such as describing their own dream or visualizing a friend’s dream (You, Lee, Lee & Kim, 2018). This study found an increase in-class participation, empathy, and one’s ability to communicate with peers (You et al, 2018); studies of this model in other classes also found increased self-esteem – but all of these traits contribute to mental wellness and can counter the isolation felt by many students following a year of primarily remote instruction.

While CAPE may not have explicitly asked artists to include empathy in projects in the past, the themes of empathy, connectedness, and ability to identify feelings of yourself and others have appeared in past CAPE inquiry questions, showing that these themes are already intrinsic to CAPE’s work. 

For example, in one of the 2017-2018 A/R Partners Projects, students were studying agriculture and how to care for animals. The class had a therapy dog, Louie, who became the center of the project. 

We wanted to explore the idea of empathy through movement and observation to see how that might inform the way they relate to the animals and each other. We were hoping that by observing and imagining how the animals might ‘feel’ or respond to things, they could deepen their sense of empathy towards them and further understand the responsibilities they have towards them and each other. We hoped that this could broaden their view of how things are interconnected and the relationships between animals and people in the agricultural context. I was surprised and pleased by how many different ways the students interpreted Louie: not only what he looks like, but how he might see things in the classroom and around the grounds. They were able to empathize and think about how Louie might respond to particular places and circumstances, for example, the kitchen where there might be a tempting smell of bacon.”

Another example comes from a 2017-2018 Collaboration Laboratory Project where the big idea was empathy. 

“In this project, students revisited the meaning/importance and definition of EMPATHY. What does it mean? [Why] is it important? How does it help us relate to others? Students engaged in an ‘Empathy Write-Around’ exercise where they wrote down positive aspects they had learned and/or observed from their peers. The ‘Write Around’ pages were exchanged so other students could comment in the same way, and then returned to the original student so they could read the positive attributes their peers saw in them. Students [also] created Blackout Poems (poetry or images culled from  ‘found’ images and/or language and then ‘blacked out’ to create new meaning. Here we explored the definition of ‘Empathy.’ To create the Blackout Poem, students were asked to erase, draw, highlight or block out parts of the definition. In doing so, the definition (what is someone else’s) becomes theirs by creating new work. The theme of empathy was discussed as a tool for trying to understand the objects of past human[s] and what they mean, trying to cultivate cross-cultural and transhistorical empathy. Students were then asked to consider things that represent their own personal identity, and make a whistle that represents that.

This summer, one SCALE class focused on their connections to nature and was tasked with creating an installation in a public space to get students to think about their connections both to place and to people. They spoke about how they envisioned their art piece, why they felt connected and drawn to the location they installed it in, and how they envisioned others interacting with its public nature. These examples show that CAPE has laid the groundwork for some sort of empathy-based learning model moving forward as teachers and teaching artists see fit in the coming year. *

In addition to the empathy-based model, there are models for integrating art therapy into the classroom. Again, CAPE is not a therapeutic program; that said, there is still some insight to gain from that model and some CAPE programs have had a focus on healing and self-care in the past. 

One mixed-methods study in the United Kingdom researched what changes in social and emotional behaviors changed in students following exposure to art therapy in class. Art therapy is a state-registered form of psychological therapy in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. In classrooms, art therapy has been known to give students the chance to create art and put words to their emotions rather than having a quick behavioral reaction to a situation.

A medium effect was found in reducing stress, reducing conduct disorder, hyperactivity, and increasing prosocial behavior. One piece of data that stands out, particularly in regards to a takeaway from the therapeutic model, is that most students found that simply creating art was the single most effective part of the therapeutic model (McDonald, Holttum & St J. Drey, 2019). This means that even though there was a therapist present and more specific questioning, the creative process alone is what students felt was the most important component; this is another argument for continuing to incorporate art into education for students’ wellness. 

While this research shows that it is not necessarily the content that is important in an art classroom, there have been inquiry questions and CAPE projects focused on self-care. One example of this came in the 2017-2018 A/R Partners Program. 

We spent time discussing how the lack of movement in students’ daily routine at school often triggered many common conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, lack of focus, and behavioral issues. At the time I was doing a thesis project for my Yoga teacher training and wanted to do something with children in schools. We started the project and then decide to turn it into a CAPE Artist/Researcher project where we could develop the idea into an arts-integrated class using Yoga as a movement practice, the learnings of Ayurveda as part of their Science studies in Ecology and have the students develop body maps and their own Yoga booklets as an art piece for healing and self-care. Students were able to understand the connections and [form] the deeper realization that while we all have similar body systems, we have different body types and react to our environments, food, and challenges differently. Being 12-14 yrs old is a crucial time to learn this when body image and mental and emotional growth is so important. [It was important to] the students a way to self-assess their lifestyle, health and body type involv[ing] them in self-care and health – something they don’t always have full control over.”


Moving forward into the next school year, focusing on students’ emotional and mental wellness should be a top priority for educators. CAPE has already been successful in arts education integration, and whether or not their teachers and teaching artists explicitly take note of the empathy-based or therapeutic model of arts education, the focus on connection, self-identity, flexibility, and creativity give CAPE the foundation to make a strong impact on student’s mental health and wellness moving forward. 


Conradty, C., Sotiriou, S. A., & Bogner, F. X. (2020). How creativity in STEAM modules intervenes with self-efficacy and motivation. Education Sciences, 10(3), 70.

Degges-White, S. (2020). Expressive arts in schools: Visual and performing arts and sandtray interventions to promote self-discovery.

Giles, M. M., Cogan, D., & Cox, C. (1991). A music and art program to promote emotional health in elementary school children. Journal of Music Therapy, 28(3), 135-148.

McDonald, A., Holttum, S., & Drey, N. S. J. (2019). Primary-school-based art therapy: exploratory study of changes in children’s social, emotional and mental health. International Journal of Art Therapy, 24(3), 125-138.

Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Cox, C., Garfield, R., & Chidambaram, P. (2021). Mental health and substance use considerations among children during the Covid-19 pandemic. KFF.

You, S., Lee, J., Lee, Y., & Kim, E. K. (2020). The effects of middle school art class with an empathy-based learning model. Current Psychology, 39(5), 1819-1829.

CAPE Projects Referenced

2017-2018 A/R Partners: Elizabeth McCarthy & Jennifer Mannebach

2017-2018 A/R Partners: Maria Nava & Laura Sáenz

2017-2018 Collaboration Laboratory: Lanetta Wilson, Liz McCarthy & Timothy Rey

2021 SCALE Summer: Kathryn Peterman & Juan-Carlos Perez


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