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The Influence of Teacher–Child Relationships on Preschool Children’s Cortisol Levels

  • Bridget E. HatfieldEmail author
Chapter
Part of the Emerging Issues in Family and Individual Resilience book series (EIIFR)

Abstract

A central component of the stress response system, the HPA axis, is shaped in part by environmental inputs throughout early childhood. In particular, the relationships children have during this time are associated with levels of cortisol, the hormonal by-product of the HPA axis. High levels or aberrant patterns of cortisol in young children are related to a variety of deleterious outcomes. Encouragingly, sensitive, responsive parent–child relationships support adaptive cortisol levels and can protect the child in the face of adverse life events. For many children, relationships with teachers in early care and education (ECE) settings are also necessary. This chapter outlines the unique role of ECE teachers on preschool children’s developing stress response system. Children with close, supportive relationships with their ECE teachers are more likely to succeed academically and behaviorally. Further, close relationships and responsive, sensitive ECE classrooms support cortisol patterns for children that align with the expected decline across the day. Results from relationship-focused interventions indicate that a focus on these types of supports may lead to positive change in children’s cortisol at child care. Implications for practice, policies, and families are discussed.

Keywords

Teacher–child relationships Cortisol Preschool Child care quality Early care and education HPA axis Sensitive caregiving 

Notes

Glossary

Classroom relational climate

A construct of classroom process quality that focuses explicitly on responsive, warm, and sensitive teacher–child interactions at the classroom level.

Close teacher–child relationship

A teacher–child relationship that is characterizied by sensitive and warm interactions, children’s use of the teacher as a secure base, and display of positive affection.

Cortisol

A hormone produced by the HPA axis that affords the ability to cope with stressors and daily life. Cortisol is expected to be the highest approximately 30 min after wake and then decline across the day.

Early care and education

A setting (e.g., center, family child care home) that serves children 0–5 years. The focus of these settings is on the care, education, and development of young children.

Hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis

HPA axis provides a more consistent response (compared to the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems) through the release of cortisol that helps the individual return to homeostasis. It primes the individual to be vigilant through the release of the hormone cortisol.

Process quality

A construct of classroom quality that focuses on relationships and interactions between teachers and children and among peers.

School readiness

A set of skills which include cognitive (e.g., language), social (e.g., peer relations), emotional (e.g., regulation of anger), and behavioral (e.g., impulse control) competencies that children should possess to be ready for school. Often refered to as skills children need to be ready for kindergarten/formal schooling.

Secure attachment

An attachment classification coined by Mary Ainsworth that characterizes an adult–child relationship that is sensitive, warm, and responsive. In a secure adult–child attachment, the child uses the adult as a secure base.

Stress response system

Comprised of three distinct structures—parasympathetic, sympathetic, and hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis that react in response to a stressor.

Structural quality

A construct of classroom quality that focuses on largely physical factors such as teacher education level, curriculum, ratio, and classroom materials.

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Public Health and Human Sciences, School of Social and Behavioral Health SciencesOregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA

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