About the project

What happens when we make art together? This project explores the impact of engaging with the arts on infant’s well-being, development and attachment relationships. We are looking to create an evidence base for the social consequences of art making in early childhood, for both vulnerable and non-vulnerable families

The project began with the development of the Create Together art therapy groups by art psychotherapist Vicky Armstrong. Seeing the need for an intervention to help improve attachments at an early stage she was awarded a grant from the Kerr-Fry bequest in 2012-13 to run a pilot. The groups were well received and the parents involved all reported an improvement in their relationship to their infant. You can read more about these groups and their outcomes here.

Looking for more objective ways to measure changes in the infant’s experience of their relationships following from their participation in the groups, Vicky approached Dr Josephine Ross and they collaborated on a 2nd bid to the Kerr Fry bequest in 2014-15, this time using more formalised evaluation measures and video data to look for observable change. A BPS vacation scholarship in 2016 allowed us to work with a student, Egle Dalinkeviciute, to test whether it was possible to apply a qualitative coding system to the tapes to measure behavioural changes associated with secure attachment. You can see Egle’s poster presentation here.

In the current stage of this project we will work collaboratively with the Dundee Contemporary Arts centre in order to study the impact that the art participation has upon the social well-being of young children and how shared art experiences may help to build strong attachment relationships. This will be looked at from two perspectives; studying the impact upon families with children who attend participatory arts activities as part of the DCA activity programme, and measuring the efficacy of a specific arts psychotherapy intervention which targets families with young children where the attachment relationships are considered vulnerable. The project aims to look for details of the behavioural changes following these participatory and therapeutic arts experiences in order to pick apart what is happening when young children make art together with their carers.

The research context

The quality of the loving bond between caregivers and infants in the first three years of life lays the foundations for social , emotional, and biological development. Warm, reciprocal interactions demonstrate to infants their positive influence on the social environment and build expectations of safe, supportive responses from others. These schemas lead to positive concepts of self, and encourage individuals to engage with and build relationships (Svanberg, 1998). The consequences of secure attachment can also be observed in the infants’ brain, mediating the development of neural structures in the hippocampus involved in learning, memory, and regulating stress (Schore, 2001). In short, positive attachment experiences builds the resilience central to good mental health. In keeping with this observation, there is strong evidence linking poor attachment relationships with poor life outcomes. Insecure attachment is associated with disruption in childhood cognitive and behavioural development (Belsky, 2001) and predictive of a wide variety of mental illnesses later in life (Weich et al. 2009). Crucially, the quality of early relationships are open to change (Van IJzendoorn et al., 1995). This means that attachment interventions have the potential to have an immediate and preventative impact on psychopathology. Moreover, as the key risk factor for insecure attachment is having a parent or foster parent who themselves experienced suboptimal attachment (Van IJzendoorn, 1995), targeting intervention at an early stage has the potential to improve not only the current health of the dyad, but the health of future generations.

An art psychotherapy approach is theoretically ideal for supporting early relationships because the experience of trying new materials allows the therapist to support the parent in regulating and attuning with the infant’s aims and feelings, and facilitates positive touch and sensory experiences. These mind-minded and nurturing processes are thought key to positive attachment (Van IJzendoorn et al, 1995, Bigelow et al, 2010). However, although there have been a number of published case studies of parent-infant art therapy groups (e.g. Hosea, 2006), including three studies which found an overall positive impact on self-reported maternal mental health and parent-infant attachment (Ponteri, 2001; Arroyo & Fowler, 2013; Armstrong & Howatson, 2015), these small scale studies lack the statistical and clinical power to provide a strong evidence base for art therapy intervention, and there has been only limited discussion of how art making might facilitate change (Ball 2002, Isserow 2008). Further, no previous art therapy study accounted for likely moderators of attachment intervention, such as socio-economic status, parent’s attachment history and mental health, the child’s age, or the fit between parent’s and child’s temperament (Van IJzendoorn et al., 1995). Thus, a key objective of our project is to strengthen the scientific evidence base for art based attachment intervention for groups at risk of attachment difficulties. Our methods allow for the first time, scientific assessment of the extent to which art therapy is an effective attachment intervention, for whom, and why.

Beyond the specialist field of psychotherapy there is a growing interest in how arts in general can impact upon wellbeing (Clift 2012). A number of participatory arts programmes working with the mothers of young children show promise in improving attachments and psychological development (South London Gallery, 2015) and there are attempts to make frameworks for evaluations in this area (Daykin et al 2014, Fancourt & Joss, 2014, Public Health England 2016). However, discussion of specific mechanisms for art facilitated change is again limited. Indeed the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing report (2017) specifically recommends that research councils should fund interdisciplinary work that evidences the link between arts and well-being. In recognition of this, a wider objective of project is to explore the social functions and consequences of art making in community settings. To provide this broader context, the project is embedded within Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), an internationally renowned centre for contemporary arts which aims to enrich people’s lives through art, culture and creativity.