Nav: Home

Early-life challenges affect how children focus, face the day

June 05, 2019

Adversity early in life tends to affect a child's executive function skills -- their ability to focus, for example, or organize tasks.

Experiences such as poverty, residential instability, or parental divorce or substance abuse, also can lead to changes in a child's brain chemistry, muting the effects of stress hormones. These hormones rise to help us face challenges, stress or to simply "get up and go."

Together, these impacts to executive function and stress hormones create a snowball effect, adding to social and emotional challenges that can continue through childhood. A new University of Washington study examines how adversity can change the ways children develop.

"This study shows how adversity is affecting multiple systems inside a child," said the study's lead author, Liliana Lengua, a UW professor of psychology and director of the Center for Child and Family Well-Being. "The disruption of multiple systems of self-control, both intentional planning efforts and automatic stress-hormone responses, sets off a cascade of neurobiological effects that starts early and continues through childhood."

The study, published May 10 in Development and Psychopathology, evaluated 306 children at intervals over more than two years, starting when participants were around 3 years old, up to age 5 ½. Children were from a range of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, with 57% considered lower income or near poverty.

Income was a key marker for adversity. In addition, the children's mothers were surveyed about other risk factors that have been linked to poor health and behavior outcomes in children, including family transitions, residential instability, and negative life events such as abuse or the incarceration of a parent.

Against these data, Lengua's team tested children's executive function skills with a series of activities, and, through saliva samples, a stress-response hormone called diurnal cortisol.

The hormone that "helps us rise to a challenge," Lengua said, cortisol tends to follow a daily, or diurnal, pattern: It increases early in the morning, helping us to wake up. It is highest in the morning -- think of it as the energy to face the day -- and then starts to fall throughout the day. But the pattern is different among children and adults who face constant stress, Lengua said.

"What we see in individuals experiencing chronic adversity is that their morning levels are quite low and flat through the day, every day. When someone is faced with high levels of stress all the time, the cortisol response becomes immune, and the system stops responding. That means they're not having the cortisol levels they need to be alert and awake and emotionally ready to meet the challenges of the day," she said.

To assess executive function, researchers chose preschool-friendly activities that measured each child's ability to follow directions, pay attention and take actions contrary to impulse. For instance, in a game called "Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders," children are told to do the opposite of what a researcher tells them to do -- if the researcher says, "touch your head," the child is supposed to touch their toes. In another activity, children interact with two puppets -- a monkey and a dragon -- but are supposed to follow only the instructions given by the monkey.

When children are better at following instructions in these and similar activities, they tend to have better social skills and manage their emotions when stressed. Children who did well on these tasks also tended to have more typical patterns of diurnal cortisol.

But children who were in families that had lower income and higher adversity tended to have both lower executive function and an atypical diurnal cortisol pattern. Each of those contributed to more behavior problems and lower social-emotional competence in children when they were about to start kindergarten.

The study shows that not only do low income and adversity affect children's adjustment, but they also impact these self-regulation systems that then add to children's adjustment problems. "Taken all together, it's like a snowball effect, with adverse effects adding together," Lengua said.

While past research has pointed to the effects of adversity on executive function, and to the specific relationship between cortisol and executive function, this new study shows the additive effects over time, Lengua said.

"Executive function is an indicator that shows the functioning of cognitive regulation. Cortisol is the neuroendocrine response, an automatic response, and the two consistently emerge as being related to each other and impacting behavior in children," she said.

The research could be used to inform parenting programs, early childhood and school-based interventions, Lengua said. Safe, stable environments and communities, and positive, nurturing parenting practices support child development, while a focus on relationships and healthy behaviors in preschool settings can support children of all backgrounds -- those with high as well as low adversity.
-end-
The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Co-authors were Stephanie Thompson, Erika Ruberry and Melanie Klein of the UW Department of Psychology; Lyndsey Moran of the Boston Child Study Center; Maureen Zalewski of the University of Oregon; and Cara Kiff of UCLA.

For more information, contact Lengua at Liliana@uw.edu.

University of Washington

Related Stress Articles:

Why stress doesn't always cause depression
Rats susceptible to anhedonia, a core symptom of depression, possess more serotonin neurons after being exposed to chronic stress, but the effect can be reversed through amygdala activation, according to new research in JNeurosci.
How plants handle stress
Plants get stressed too. Drought or too much salt disrupt their physiology.
Stress in the powerhouse of the cell
University of Freiburg researchers discover a new principle -- how cells protect themselves from mitochondrial defects.
Measuring stress around cells
Tissues and organs in the human body are shaped through forces generated by cells, that push and pull, to ''sculpt'' biological structures.
Cellular stress at the movies
For the first time, biological imaging experts have used a custom fluorescence microscope and a novel antibody tagging tool to watch living cells undergoing stress.
Maternal stress at conception linked to children's stress response at age 11
A new study published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease finds that mothers' stress levels at the moment they conceive their children are linked to the way children respond to life challenges at age 11.
A new way to see stress -- using supercomputers
Supercomputer simulations show that at the atomic level, material stress doesn't behave symmetrically.
Beware of evening stress
Stressful events in the evening release less of the body's stress hormones than those that happen in the morning, suggesting possible vulnerability to stress in the evening.
How plants cope with stress
With climate change comes drought, and with drought comes higher salt concentrations in the soil.
Gene which decreases risk of social network-related stress, increases finance-related stress risk
Researchers have discovered that the same gene which increases your risk of depression following financial stress as you grow older also reduces your chance of depression associated with friendship and relationships stresses when young- your social network.
More Stress News and Stress Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Uncharted
There's so much we've yet to explore–from outer space to the deep ocean to our own brains. This hour, Manoush goes on a journey through those uncharted places, led by TED Science Curator David Biello.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 2: Every Day is Ignaz Semmelweis Day
It began with a tweet: "EVERY DAY IS IGNAZ SEMMELWEIS DAY." Carl Zimmer – tweet author, acclaimed science writer and friend of the show – tells the story of a mysterious, deadly illness that struck 19th century Vienna, and the ill-fated hero who uncovered its cure ... and gave us our best weapon (so far) against the current global pandemic. This episode was reported and produced with help from Bethel Habte and Latif Nasser. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.