The transition to kindergarten leads to a general and normal increase in the stress hormone cortisol in children in the two weeks after the start of school. In some children this increase then subsides, in others it does not.
This is suggested by the results of a study conducted by a team from the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center and the University of Montreal, which analyzed saliva samples from 384 children who entered kindergarten in 2017 or 2018.
“There are often concerns about how children experience the transition to kindergarten, and various interventions are recommended to prepare children for the challenges of the school transition,” says Maggy Leblond, first author of the study. But the science supporting these recommendations remains limited.”
While some smaller studies have found an increase in cortisol levels in children entering kindergarten, which has the function of helping the child adapt, until now it was not known when and for how long levels of this hormone start to rise and remain elevated .
Five measures in five months
Credit: Photo courtesy
Recently appeared in the magazine psychoneuroendocrinology, The study, supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, aimed to examine three types of stress responses at different points in the school transition:
• prospective (sampling at the end of June and two weeks before the start of the school year);
• at school enrollment (first and second week of kindergarten);
• adaptive (two months after the start of classes, ie in November).
In total, the research team analyzed more than 1700 samples.
The data showed that the children’s cortisol levels did not increase overall during the expectancy phase. However, they increased significantly in the first week after their arrival in kindergarten, and gradually increased in the following week.
Then, two months later, these levels had returned to normal in some children, reflecting an adjustment to their new situation, while still remaining high in others.
A stress factor that persists for some children
Photo credit: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin
According to Jean Séguin, researcher at CHU Sainte-Justine, full professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Addiction at UdeM and supervisor of Maggy Leblond’s doctoral thesis, “supports this increase, which could not be linked to any of the socio-demographic characteristics of children , the hypothesis that starting school is a normative environmental stressor, meaning that the majority of children respond physiologically to the start of the school year.
However, researcher Sophie Parent from CHU Sainte-Justine and full professor at the School of Psychoeducation at UdeM, who also contributed to the study, is puzzled by the fact that a significant proportion of the children “cortisol levels remained high after two years months of school experience”.
“We don’t yet know exactly what explains these differences and what they tell us about the adaptive response,” concludes Maggy Leblond, whose next work will examine exactly what differentiates children who physiologically adapt faster from those who adapt less quickly could and how it could be improved prepare new students for life in the classroom.
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