Researchers at New York University found that children from low income backgrounds who live under under stress (“crowded conditions, financial worry, and lack of adequate child care”) exhibit high levels of the hormone cortisol, which was found to be linked to behavioral and academic problems. The researchers came to this conclusion after looking at stress hormone levels, behavior tests, and school readiness scores for young low income students enrolled in Headstart. For one study, researchers took saliva samples to measure cortisol levels and asked students to identify similarities in pictures and to do other tasks to exhibit their self control skills. Researchers found that those children with normal levels of cortisol were high in self-control. Students with low levels of self control had high levels of cortisol. The same students were reassessed in kindergarten. Researchers found that the students with low Math, Reading, and Writing performance had high levels of cortisol.
The study also linked parenting style with cortisol levels, finding that children of parents who practice “scaffolding behavior” (engaging their children in learning opportunities like building blocks) have lower levels of the stress hormone.
Clancy Blair, Ph.D of NYU stated in a press release on the findings: “Research indicates that stress from a variety of sources—including crowded and chaotic home and classroom environments, for example, or problems with family or peers—impedes learning. The potential good news is knowing that stress is a malevolent force means that finding ways to thwart it could boost children’s learning capacity.”
According to the release, “The researchers are now testing a new program that teaches parents how to engage in scaffolding behavior—to provide opportunities for their children to learn while providing supportive and loving care. The program is also testing a new curriculum that gives preschoolers and kindergarteners more control over their learning activities. In a year, the researchers will compare the children’s cortisol levels and executive functioning.”
Read the whole press release here.
For more information how stress can affect behavior and academics, check out LEV’s profile on Lincoln High in Walla Walla.