Kindergarten stressors and cumulative adrenocortical activation: the "first straws" of allostatic load?

Dev Psychopathol. 2011 Nov;23(4):1089-106. doi: 10.1017/S0954579411000514.


Using an ethnically diverse longitudinal sample of 338 kindergarten children, this study examined the effects of cumulative contextual stressors on children's developing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis regulation as an early life indicator of allostatic load. Chronic HPA axis regulation was assessed using cumulative, multiday measures of cortisol in both the fall and spring seasons of the kindergarten year. Hierarchical linear regression analyses revealed that contextual stressors related to ethnic minority status, socioeconomic status, and family adversity each uniquely predicted children's daily HPA activity and that some of those associations were curvilinear in conformation. Results showed that the quadratic, U-shaped influences of family socioeconomic status and family adversity operate in different directions to predict children's HPA axis regulation. Results further suggested that these associations differ for White and ethnic minority children. In total, this study revealed that early childhood experiences contribute to shifts in one of the principal neurobiological systems thought to generate allostatic load, confirming the importance of early prevention and intervention efforts. Moreover, findings suggested that analyses of allostatic load and developmental theories accounting for its accrual would benefit from an inclusion of curvilinear associations in tested predictive models.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Allostasis* / physiology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Family / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Linear Models
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Minority Groups / psychology
  • Minority Groups / statistics & numerical data
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Racial Groups / psychology
  • Racial Groups / statistics & numerical data
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*


  • Hydrocortisone