Stressed toddlers 'not ready for school'

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Children who experience stress in their first years of life are less likely to be 'school ready', according to a new study.

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Researchers from three American universities found that children who experienced high levels of stress in their first two years were less able to perform ‘executive functioning tasks’, tasks our brains perform that are necessary to think, act and solve problems, which are important for school readiness.

To examine whether or not children’s ability to perform executive functions are compromised by stress in early childhood, research teams from Pennsylvania State University, New York University, and the University of North Carolina, observed the home environments of around 1,300 young children mostly from low-income homes.

They took into account aspects such as demographic characteristics, household environment, such as safety and noise levels, and the quality of parenting.

They also measured children’s levels of stress hormone cortisol, and asked them to perform three tests to measure their executive functions at three-years-old.

Their findings revealed that children from lower-income homes received less positive parenting and had higher levels of cortisol in their first two years than children in slightly better-off homes. Higher levels of cortisol were also associated with lower levels of executive function abilities.

As well as this, African American children were more likely to have higher levels of cortisol than white children.

Clancy Blair, professor of applied psychology at New York University, who led the study, said, ‘Early stresses in the lives of children living in poverty affect how children develop executive functions that are important for school readiness.’

The study- ‘Salivary Cortisol Mediates Effects of Poverty and Parenting on Executive Functions in Early Childhood’, is published in the September/October issue of the journal Child Development.

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