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Children’s Self-regulation and Activity in the Stress Response System Within Preschool Classrooms

Fri, March 22, 1:00 to 2:30pm, Baltimore Convention Center, Floor: Level 3, Room 329

Integrative Statement

Nationally, nearly ¾ of preschool-aged children spend some time in formal child care, and these children may be at-risk for atypical patterns of activity in cortisol (Vermeer & van Ijzendoorn, 2006). Further, aberrant cortisol patterns are linked to externalizing behaviors in preschool children (Alink et al., 2008). However, dimensions of process quality, such as emotionally supportive teacher-child interactions, promote adaptive (a decline across the day) cortisol patterns for preschool children in child care (Hatfield et al., 2013). The research exploring the effects of organized classroom environments on children’s cortisol is mixed (Hatfield et al., 2013; LeGendre, 2003). In addition, the development of self-regulation skills, such as inhibitory control and working memory that are associated with academic, social, and emotional outcomes (e.g., Ponitz et al., 2009), may also be influenced by classroom interactions. Children in classrooms that effectively organize time and behavior have higher inhibitory control skills but show lower inhibitory control skills in classrooms with higher emotional support (Hamre et al., 2014). Continuing to understand relations among preschool children’s classroom interactions, self-regulation, and activity in the stress response system has implications for teachers, children, and families.
Eleven preschool classrooms and 54 children (43% female; Mage=50.4months) participated in the current study. Children were enrolled for at least two months and spent at least 20 hours/week in the participating classroom. Family income ranged from <$2,000/month (6%) to >$10,000/month (32%). Thirty-two percent of children were identified by their parent as African American, 43% Caucasian, 3% Latino, and 22% multiple or other race. Twelve lead teachers (one pair of co-teachers), all female, in 11 center-based preschool classrooms participated. Half of the teachers held a BS/BA (58%) and 25% had 0-5 years of teaching experience.
Classroom observations with the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS; Pianta et al., 2008) were conducted over two days. The CLASS reports on three domains of teacher-child interactions: Emotional Support (α=.77), Classroom Organization (α=.71), and Instructional Support (α=.80). Saliva samples were taken three times across the morning over both days. Samples were assayed in duplicate for salivary cortisol levels and average rate of diurnal change was calculated for analyses. Children’s self-regulation skills were assessed with the pencil tap (Diamond & Taylor, 1996; α=.92) and the Head-Shoulder-Knees-Toes (HTKS, α=.89; McClelland et al., 2014).
Descriptives and correlation coefficients are described in Table 1. Separate regression models (Table 2) were executed for each CLASS domain in line with previous work. Results indicate that children’s cortisol rate of diurnal change was associated with Emotional Support and Classroom Organization. Children displayed a decline in cortisol levels across the morning in classrooms with responsive, sensitive adults as well as in those with clear behavior expectations and a predictable schedule. Children’s self-regulation with the HTKS was marginally associated with Emotional Support, but no other significant associations between classroom quality and self-regulation emerged. These results help explain the complex ways in which classroom interactions may influence biology and behavior. Final analyses will also include an exploration of stability of CLASS scores and children’s cortisol and self-regulation skills.

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