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Stress reactivity of six-year-old children involved in challenging tasks

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The aim of this study was to investigate whether the preschool activities challenge the stress regulative system in children. We used a multi-system approach to evaluate the underlying processes of stress responses and measured both cortisol and α-amylase responses after emotionally and cognitively challenging tasks followed by a recovery session. We anticipated that challenging tasks would increase both cortisol and α-amylase levels above the baseline. We further expected that recovery sessions would decrease both levels towards the baseline. In addition, we expected the symmetry of α-amylase and cortisol reactivity to be related to the ability to orientate towards cognitive demands. The study involved a total of 91 children (42 girls, 49 boys; six-year-olds). Baseline saliva samples were collected during a single day in October 2008. Reactivity saliva samples were collected during one morning in February 2009. During that day, the children first watched a movie with an experimenter who was unfamiliar to the children. After the movie, the children went to another room where the experimenter conducted all the cognitive tasks. These tasks were followed by a recovery session. The baseline cortisol levels indicated an average established function of the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical) system in the study children. Contrary to our hypothesis, only 19% of the study children showed the expected pattern of stress reactivity for both cortisol and α-amylase, with an average increase in cortisol and α-amylase levels following the challenging tasks. Unexpectedly, cortisol and α-amylase levels increased significantly in the singing recovery session. The surprising finding that singing seemed to be the only stimulating activity during the entire experimental situation raises questions about preschool practices.
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Keywords: challenging tasks; cortisol; preschool; recovery; stress reactivity; α-amylase

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Teacher Education,University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland 2: Finnish Institute for Occupational Health, Helsinki, Finland

Publication date: 2012-02-01

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