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The transition to kindergarten results in a general and normal increase in the stress hormone, cortisol, in children during the two weeks after school starts. This increase then fades in some children but not in others.
This is indicated by the results of a study carried out by a team from the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center and the University of Montreal, which analyzed saliva samples taken from 384 children who entered kindergarten in 2017 or 2018.
“There is often concern about how children experience the transition to kindergarten, and various measures are recommended to prepare children to meet the challenges of school transition,” says Maggy Leblond, lead author of the study. But the science behind these recommendations remains limited.”
Although some small-scale studies have noted an increase in cortisol levels in children entering kindergarten, an increase that may have the function of promoting the adaptation of the child, until now it was not known when the concentration of cortisol begins to rise. this hormone and how long it lasts. remains elevated.
Five measures in five months
Credit: Photo Courtesy
Recently published in the magazine psychoneuroendocrinology, The study, supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, aimed to examine three types of responses to stress at various points in the school transition:
• anticipatory (samples taken at the end of June and two weeks before the start of the school year);
• at the start of school (first and second weeks of kindergarten);
• adaptive (two months after the start of classes, that is, in November).
In total, the research team analyzed more than 1,700 samples.
The data revealed that, in general, the children’s cortisol levels did not increase during the anticipation period. However, they increased considerably in the first week of their arrival at kindergarten and gradually increased during the following week.
Then, two months later, these levels had returned to normal in some children, reflecting an adaptation to their new situation, while in others they still remained high.
A stressor that persists in some children
Credit: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin
According to Jean Séguin, a researcher at CHU Sainte-Justine, full professor at the UdeM Department of Psychiatry and Addictions and Maggy Leblond’s thesis director, “this increase, which could not be associated with any of the sociodemographic characteristics of the children, supports the hypothesis that the start of school is a normative environmental stressor, that is to say that most children react physiologically to the beginning of the school year”.
However, researcher Sophie Parent, from the CHU Sainte-Justine and full professor at the UdeM School of Psychoeducation, who also contributed to the study, wonders about the fact that, in a significant proportion of children, “the levels of cortisol remained elevated after two months of school experience.
“We still don’t know clearly what explains these differences and what they say about the adaptive response,” concludes Maggy Leblond, whose forthcoming paper will examine precisely what might differentiate children who adapt physiologically more quickly from those who adapt less, and the ways to do better. prepare new students for life in the classroom.