Everyone experiences stress in their daily lives. Some of it, like deadlines or first date nerves, are good stress. It propels you forward and helps you accomplish goals. Some stress, like the car in front of you slamming on the brakes, is acute, but temporary. But a more concerning type of stress that’s gained a lot of attention in the past few years is toxic stress, long-term, unrelenting exposure to stressful situations. In young children, this stress can alter the development of the brain, creating shortcuts to the parts of the brain that “turn on” stress responses and limiting connections to the parts of the brain responsible for learning and reasoning.
Because of the life-altering potential of managing and mitigating stress, especially in early childhood, it’s important to understand when, why, and how children experience it. Stress isn’t just emotional. The feeling of stress is caused by physical changes in the body, which can be measured by examining levels of different enzymes and hormones, including alpha-amylase and cortisol. Alpha-amylase typically increases over the course of the day until the late afternoon, in line with our sleep schedules.
Higher cortisol indicates higher psychological distress. While we expect cortisol levels to decrease over the course of a day, there’s some evidence that children in full-time child care actually show increased levels by the afternoon. To explore why this might be the case, researchers looked to process quality (children’s immediate experiences and interactions in child care settings) to find out.
First, they selected a random sample of 14 participating child care centers in North Carolina. The sample was drawn to represent varying levels of quality (as measured by their quality rating and improvement system) and child care subsidy (as a proxy for income). Data collectors conducted CLASS observations over the course of two days. In order to measure stress, they also collected saliva samples from 63 children across those classrooms at six intervals: both days shortly after arrival, after morning free play, and in the late afternoon.
In general, children’s cortisol levels across the day looked like a wide “v,” with similar levels observed at morning arrival and in the afternoon and a dip in the mid-morning. Late afternoons looked to be the most stressful (slightly higher than at arrival), which was consistent with prior research about increasing stress across the child care day.
However, Emotional Support changed this pattern. Instead of the end-of-day increase in cortisol levels, children in classrooms with higher Emotional Support showed an overall decrease. This pattern is similar to those of children who remain at home. Additionally, their alpha-amylase levels were lower (showed less baseline stress) than their peers in less supportive classrooms.
Although this is a small study in a limited location, the results make sense. The warm, sensitive relationships and child focus found in classrooms with high Emotional Support sound a lot like the environment we hope children have at home! The results also provide additional support for the importance—academic, social, and in this case, physical—of fostering effective interactions.
Citation: Hatfield, B.E., Hestenes, L. L., Kintner-Duffy, V. L., & O’Brien, M. (2013). Classroom Emotional Support predicts differences in preschool children’s cortisol and alpha-amylase levels. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28. 347-356.
A few years into teaching early childhood, I applied to work at a school that does incredible work in the local community. I was thrilled to get an interview but realized very quickly that, even though the environment was supportive and the students were wonderful young people, I was much too intimidated to work there.
Decades of evidence indicate that high-quality early childhood education positively affects children. Yet studies reveal that too few programs implement high-quality programming. To date, improvement efforts have primarily focused on what occurs within the classroom. The Ounce of Prevention Fund (Ounce), in partnership with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium), strives to broaden the focus of improvement efforts beyond the classroom to organizational conditions that support teachers and the relationships among staff, children, and families.
We’ve written before about the discipline disparities between children of color and their white peers. (Since that post was published last year, the Department of Education has released updated - but not improved - statistics on the topic.) But discipline is not the only school arena where children from different backgrounds have different experiences. There’s also evidence that racial bias affects teachers’ academic and behavioral expectations, even in early childhood.
We’ve been talking about the achievement gap for an awfully long time. We’re all familiar with the term; it’s the disparity in academic achievement between different groups of students. We tend to hear about in relation to white students and students of color, but it can also be used to describe the difference between low-income students and their more advantaged peers.