Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Effects of an Integrated Two-Generation Intervention in Head Start on Stress Physiology and Brain Function for Self-Regulation in Children and Parents: Preliminary Results

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 2:25 PM
Merrick II (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Eric Pakulak, Theodore A. Bell, Ryan Giuliano, Melissa Gomsrud, Christina Karns, Scott Klein, Zayra Longoria, Lauren O'Neill and Helen Neville, University of Oregon
Disparities related to socioeconomic status (SES) have been documented in children into adulthood and across a wide range of outcomes including cognition, health, educational attainment, and financial stability (e.g., Hackman, Farah, & Meaney, 2010; Yoshikawa, Aber, & Beardslee, 2012).  Two aspects of brain function that predominantly underlie these disparities are stress physiology and self-regulation (e.g., Shonkoff, 2012).  Excessive activation of the stress response system early in development can create physiological disruptions that lead to increased risk for a wide range of diseases in adulthood, such that chronic stress in development is characterized as “toxic” (McEwen & Gianaros, 2010).  It has been hypothesized that deficits in attention and self-regulation could have cascading consequences for later development and learning via difficulties in selecting and focusing on relevant information in learning environments (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012).  In addition, self-regulation predicts adult outcomes related to health, financial stability, and criminal behavior (Moffitt et al., 2011).   

Guided by evidence of the neuroplasticity of systems supporting stress regulation, selective attention, and self-regulation, as well as by evidence from successful parenting programs (e.g., Reid et al., 1999), we developed a two-generation intervention that targets attention and self-regulation in preschool children by engaging the broader context of parents and the home environment.  The child component of the curriculum is delivered in the classroom, and the parent component is offered in eight weekly two-hour meetings midway through the school year. Child and parent training programs are integrated via an overarching emphasis on child attention, self-regulation, and emotional regulation and via explicit links in the parent program to child learning activities. We have shown that, relative to two comparison groups, parents in the program demonstrate reduced parenting stress, and children in the program display significant improvements in cognition, parent-reported child behaviors, and brain functions supporting selective attention (Neville et al., 2013). 

Our current project builds on a ten-year program-research partnership with Head Start of Lane County, Oregon.  As part of the study, children in 20 classrooms across seven sites are randomly assigned to receive either the two-generation intervention, Creating Connections (CC), or Head Start-as-usual, enabling us to test the hypothesis that children and parents receiving CC will show improvements in in stress physiology, brain functions for attention, and self-regulation. This paper describes preliminary findings based on the first cohort of CC participants (N = 48).  We measure stress physiology and brain function for attention and self-regulation in both children and parents before and after implementation of the parent component, in addition to longer-term measures of broader outcomes.  Because stress and self-regulation are related to multiple outcomes, we hypothesize that short-term changes in these systems will lead to broader, longer-term improvements in family well-being (e.g., Shonkoff, 2012).  Results supporting this hypothesis would provide evidence that investments in two-generation interventions that target self-regulation in children and parents from lower SES backgrounds may produce benefits that extend beyond improvements in school readiness.