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.
All across the world, researchers and educators are working on ways to help students learn. Some are small tweaks or classroom “lifehacks.” Some are big, expensive programs with huge ambitions. Some (like CLASS!) are paradigms about learning. When something works, you want it to be accessible to other practitioners. The problem is, many of the programs that are most effective also take a lot of time, money, or resources.
Most people I know who are invested in early childhood education look at Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address as an important moment. In it, Obama called on the federal government and states to work together to “make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” and talked about the economic and social impact of such policies. I teared up when I rewatched this speech. It’s powerful stuff. As it so often does, the conversation about early childhood education and care revolved around quality.
Okay, this is a slight change from our usual “What We’re Reading” posts. Instead of highlighting a particular article, we wanted to share an interesting application of research: this childcare cost calculator from the Center for American Progress. You can use it to estimate the impact of improving different parts of structural quality (the infrastructure that surrounds teaching, like teacher-child ratios, the physical space, and materials) on the cost of care.
Social-emotional skills are key to student success. These skills include the ability to recognize and regulate emotions and behavior, take others’ perspectives, and make sound choices. Children who have good social-emotional skills have an easier time making friends and maintaining strong relationships with teachers and peers.