Relationships influence children’s stress levels

PULLMAN—Stress levels for children at child-care depends not only on the qualities of the teacher and the classroom, but also on the nature of the children’s relationship with their caregivers. That’s the finding of a new study conducted by WSU researcher Jared Lisonbee and his colleagues at Auburn University, Washington State Department of Early Learning and Pennsylvania State University.

The study measures the level of the stress hormone cortisol in children in child- care. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone in humans, tends to be at its highest levels in the early morning and gradually declines over the course of the day. But recent research has found that many preschoolers in full-day child care have increases in cortisol from morning to afternoon.

This unusual increase of cortisol levels is of potential concern because long-term or frequent elevations in cortisol can have negative health consequences. Research with animals and human children suggests that secure relationships with parents protect children from rises in cortisol in stressful situations.

“Children’s Cortisol and the Quality of Teacher-Child Relationships in Child Care” appears in the November/December 2008 issue of Child Development, Vol. 79, Issue 6.

The study found that children in classrooms with more children and children with more clingy relationships with their teachers showed greater rises in cortisol from morning to afternoon. Children who experience more relationship conflict with their teachers showed greater cortisol boosts during a one-on-one session with their teachers. Examples of relationship conflict include when children perceived their teachers as unfriendly, or when teachers or children reported frustration while interacting with each other.

“This study sheds additional light on an as yet incompletely understood phenomenon¬ among many young children attending full-day child care,” said Lisonbee, assistant professor of human development at WSU and lead author of the study. “Additionally, the study begins to situate child care-cortisol research in the context of a broader literature on the role of relationships in shaping how children function and how they react to stress.”

The study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, looked at 191 preschoolers, four and five years-olds, attending different child care centers. Teachers described their relationships with the children in their care on a questionnaire and children talked about their relationships with their teachers in interviews.

Lisonbee’s research focuses on children’s experiences in classroom settings. He plans to continue his research into the consequences of high cortisol levels in children.

“We don’t know what the long-term effects of children’s increased cortisol levels in child-care might be,” he said. “Cortisol increase may be a normal way for children to cope with a stressful classroom situation, but high cortisol also may increase children’s susceptibility to illness or even relate to learning difficulties, for example.”

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