The Biology of Stress and the Implications for Classroom Practice

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In studying the emotional lives of early childhood educators, I am learning a great deal about the impact of stress in the early childhood environment. We all have stress in our lives and the Harvard Center for the Developing Child speaks to three types of stress that individuals’ experience. The following definitions of stress are taken from their website.

Positive stress: moderate, brief, and generally a normal part of life (e.g., entering a new child care setting). Learning to adjust to this type of stress is an essential component of healthy development.

Tolerable stress: events that have the potential to alter the developing brain negatively, but which occur infrequently and give the brain time to recover (e.g., the death of a loved one).

Toxic stress: strong, frequent, and prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system (e.g., chronic neglect).

While stress in our lives cannot be eliminated, there are healthy levels of stress in our lives that play an important role in building our resiliency and ability to cope with life. Our reactions to stress are personally individualized and our ability to cope relies on a complex and ever changing equation of individual and environmental factors.

When we experience negative stress, we produce one of two types of biological responses in our brains, adrenaline or cortisol. 

Adrenaline generally occurs in a spike pattern as a response to a stressor. For example, stepping off a curb without looking, when a car approaches, it is the spike of adrenaline that allows you to leap back onto the sidewalk without thinking.  Adrenaline is what triggers our fight, flight, or freezes responses. Once the threat has passed our bodies reset themselves and our state of hyperawareness passes.

Cortisol is another type of biological response to stress. Cortisol can remain at heightened levels over time, differing from the spike pattern of adrenaline. Cortisol levels measure longer durations of heightened awareness. In healthy interactions, cortisol levels elevate and then reset. The resetting of cortisol levels leads to long-term resiliency as the body learns to navigate stress and then returns to a low stress state, supporting long-term self-regulation.

A lack of resetting of the cortisol levels can lead to hyper-vigilance and long-term health and emotional outcome for children. The long-term effects of chronic stress is well documented in the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study---from lack of ability to read emotional signal to shorter life expectance.

There is a relationship between adults, young children, and cortisol. The cortisol levels of adults’ impact cortisol levels in children---parents and caregivers with high cortisol levels, show their children have heightened cortisol levels. It seems evident that parent and child cortisol levels would correlate.

However, new evidence shows that early childhood educators’ cortisol levels also impact the children in their care. In nine studies across a decade, children’s cortisol levels were elevated in early childhood settings. Impacts of cortisol come from a variety of factors in the early childhood environment, including high teacher turnover, high levels of transitions, lack of choice of activity, and space in the environment.

Direct correlations exist between children’s cortisol levels and group size and early childhood classroom space. The smaller the space or the higher the numbers, the greater the stress was in children, measured by their cortisol levels.

The quality of the program has a direct affect on children’s cortisol levels. Warm, nurturing early childhood educators can affect cortisol levels in young children, helping to lower cortisol, returning levels to those similar in warm, nurturing home environments. Quality programs have quality interactions and experiences based on intentional educational practices and engaged of early childhood educators.