In 2008 we started Project 1, 2, 3, Go! which is a study of the effects of low income and adversity on young children’s development of self-regulation, social and emotional competence. Children were 3-years old when they started the study, and we have followed them into pre-adolescence.
Self-regulation is a critical skill that underlies children’s development of social and emotional competence. It is also a key predictor of young children’s school readiness and academic success Children growing up in economically disadvantaged contexts are at risk for having lower self-regulation. This study was aimed at understanding some of the reasons for this and identifying what parents can do to foster better self-regulation and well-being in their children. We studied children’s effortful (or executive) control, regulation of their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which produces cortisol, and physiological measures of emotional regulation.
Family Strain. Stress or strain due to economic hardship can affect multiple areas of families’ lives, increasing the likelihood of stressful events, residential changes, and other disruptions. These challenging conditions may affect preschool children’s developing self-regulation by the effects they have on children’s stress physiology and through parent and family relationships.
Children’s Stress Physiology. We examined how dysregulation of children’s neuroendocrine system might play a role in children’s developing self-regulation. We measured salivary cortisol levels to provide an indication of regulation of the HPA-axis. We were also interested in how physiological indicators of emotional reactivity might shape children’s emerging self-regulation skills.
Parents and Families. Families experiencing significant strain may be challenged to maintain positive family relationships. There can be increased conflict, distress and demoralization among family members. In turn, this can create challenges for parenting. Conversely, when families are able to maintain positive relationships and positive parenting behaviors in the face of strain, children can be buffered from the effects of stress.
Families who participated
306 families participated in Project 1, 2, 3, Go! Starting when their children were 3 years old. Families represented the full range of income with equal numbers of families living at or near poverty, in lower, middle and upper income households. This allowed us to examine the effects of income and the stress and adversity associated with lower income on children and families.
What we found
When children experience adversity or stress, they can have lower self-regulation: We found that children with higher levels of adversity or stress were more likely to demonstrate lower effortful control. They were also more likely to demonstrate dysregulated HPA-axis activity, which in turn predicted lower effortful control.
Parents help promote effortful control in their children: Parents who provided consistent information about expectations with the right balance of providing children with structure and independence tended to have children with higher effortful control. In turn, children with higher self-control drew more positive interactions with their parents.
Also, parents who were more consistently warm and accepting had children who were more likely to have a well-regulation HPA-axis. In turn, a well-regulated HPA-axis contributes to the development of effortful control, representing another pathway through which adversity and parenting contribute to the development of child well-being
Children’s executive function helps with emotion regulation: Thanks to the many families who participated in the additional EEG session we were able to look at how brain activity associated with self-control contributes to emotion regulation! Children who are able to focus their attention and give the correct response when we tried to distract them during the EEG computer games also tended to feel less frustrated when they were trying to get a prize that was either locked in a box or tied in a bag. Those children’s mothers also reported that the children showed lower levels of frustration at home. This suggests that the ability to control your attention and focus during difficult cognitive tasks might also translate into being better able to control emotional responses.
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