Project 1, 2, 3, Go!

Understanding the effects of low income, family adversity and parenting on children’s development of self-regulation and social-emotional competence.

Our goal
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.


Lengua, L. J., Thompson, S. F., Moran, L. R., Zalewski, M., Ruberry, E. J., Klein, M. R., & Kiff, C. J. (2019). Pathways from Early Adversity to Later Adjustment: Tests of the Additive and Bidirectional Effects of Executive Control and Diurnal Cortisol in Early Childhood, Development and Psychopathology. doi:10.1017/S0954579419000373

Gartsein, M., Seamon, E., Lengua, L. J. (2018). Parenting matters: Moderation of biological and community risk for obesity in preschoolers. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 56, 21-34.

Klein, M., Moran, L., Cortes, R., Zalewski, M., Ruberry, E., Lengua, L. J. (2018). Temperament, Mothers’ Reactions to Children’s Emotional Experiences, and Emotion Understanding Predicting Adjustment in Preschool Children. Social Development. DOI: 10.1111/sode.12282

Ruberry, E. J., Klein, M. R., Kiff, C. J., Thomspon, S. F., & Lengua, L. J. (2018). Parenting as a moderator of the effects of cumulative risk on children’s social-emotional adjustment and academic readiness. Infant and Child Development, 27, doi: 10.1002/icd.2071, 30140171

Thompson, S. F., Zalewski, M., Kiff, C. J., Lengua, L. J. (2018). A state-trait model of cortisol in early childhood: Contextual and parental predictors of stable and time-varying effects. Hormones and Behavior, 98, 198-209. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2017.12.009. PMID: 29305885

Gartstein, M., Seamon, E., Thompson, S. F., & Lengua, L. J. (2017). Community Crime Exposure and Risk for Obesity in Preschool Children: Moderation by the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal (HPA)-Axis. Journal of Pediatric Psychology. 1-13. doi: 10.1093/jpepsy/jsx116

Ruberry, E. J., Lengua, L. J., Crocker, L. H., Bruce, J., Upshaw, M. B., & Sommerville, J. A. (2017). Income, neural executive processes and preschool children’s executive control. Developmental Psychopathology.DOI: 10.1017/S095457941600002X

Klein, M., Lengua, L. J., Thompson, S., Kiff, C., Ruberry, E., Moran, L., Zalewski, M. (2016). Bidirectional Relations Between Temperament and Parenting Predicting Preschool-age Children’s Adjustment Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. PMID:27399174

Moran, L., Lengua, L. J., Zalewski, M., Ruberry, E., Klein, M., Thompson, S., Kiff, C. (2016).  Variable- and Person-Centered Approaches to Examining Temperament Vulnerability and Resilience to the Effects of Contextual Risk. Journal of Research in Personality. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2016.03.003

Tadon, P., Thompson, S., Moran, L., Lengua, L. (2015). Body mass index mediates the effects of low income on preschool children’s executive control, with implications for behavior and academics. Childhood Obesity, 11, 569-576. PMID: 26440385

Zalewski, M., Lengua, L. J., Thompson, S., Kiff, C. J.(2015). Income, cumulative risk and longitudinal profiles of hypothalamic-picuitary-adrenal axis activity in preschool age children. Development & Psychopathology.DOI: 10.1017/S0954579415000474 

Lengua, L. J., Moran, L. R., Zalewski, M, Ruberry, E, Kiff, C & Thompson, S. (2014). Relations of Growth in Effortful Control to Family Income, Cumulative Risk, and Adjustment in Preschool-age Children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 

Lengua, L. J., Kiff, C. Moran, L. R., Zalewski, M., Thompson, S. F., Cortes, R. & Ruberry, E. (2014). Parenting Mediates the Effects of Income and Cumulative Risk on the Development of Effortful Control. Social Development, 23, 631-649. 

Lengua, L. J. Zalewski, M., Fisher, P., Moran, L. (2013). Does HPA-axis Dysregulation Account for the Effects of Income on Effortful Control and Adjustment in Preschool Children? Infant and Child Development, 22, 439-458. DOI: 10.1002/icd.1805, NIHMS599969

Moran, L. R., Lengua, L. J., & Zalewski, M. (2013). The interaction between negative emotionality and effortful control in early social-emotional development. Social Development, 22, 340-362. 

Thompson, S. F., Lengua, L. J., Zalewski, M., & Moran, L. (2013). Income and the development of effortful control as predictors of teacher reports of preschool adjustment. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28, 784-793. PMC3819041

Zalewski, M., Lengua, L. J., Kiff, C., & Fisher, P. (2012). Understanding the relation of low income to HPA-axis functioning in preschool children: Cumulative family adversity and parenting as pathways to disruptions in cortisol. Child Psychiatry and Human Development. DOI: 10.1007/s10578-012-0304-3.