All parents want their children to engage with teachers and develop a caring bond. Now, a new study of the stress levels of preschoolers underscores the health impact of teacher-child relationships.
Children who engaged with teachers in one-on-one play sessions designed to foster warm, caring relationships showed reduced stress levels during the day as compared to children who did not participate in the activity. The findings, published recently in the journal Prevention Science, show that even small, positive interactions can have a valuable impact on a child’s well-being.
“Relationships matter,” says coauthor Bridget Hatfield, an assistant professor at Oregon State University. “These teachers, in early education, can potentially change children’s developing stress-response systems. This is huge.”
An estimated 61 percent of children under the age of 5 spend time in a formal day-care or preschool setting. According to previous research, those children often show increased levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, compared to their levels in a home setting. That increase has been attributed to more stimulation in a classroom, such as large class size.
Hatfield, along with coauthor Amanda Williford of the University of Virginia, wanted to see if encouraging a supportive teacher-child relationship could affect that heightened stress level, especially for preschoolers with behavioral problems. Such children are more likely to have higher cortisol levels and sustain those levels during the day, when the hormone should normally decline.
Seventy teachers and 113 preschoolers with disruptive behaviors, who were participating in a larger experimental trial led by Williford, were placed into one of three groups: the first control group made no change in the daily routine; teachers in the second group participated in one-on-one time with each child but with no specific instructions; and the third group participated in an intervention called “Banking Time.”
Developed by two researchers at the University of Virginia, the Banking Time intervention is designed to foster sensitive, warm interactions between a teacher and child, helping to strengthen their bond. The teacher and child engage in one-on-one play sessions during which the teacher allows the child to lead, observes and narrates the child’s behavior out loud, and discusses the child’s emotions as they play.
At the end of the school year, the kids who took part in the Banking Time intervention showed significant declines in their cortisol levels (taken from saliva samples) compared to children in the control group. Earlier studies showed that the intervention also helps improve behavior for children who act out.
More research is needed to better understand how long the stress reduction lasts, and which parts of the intervention have the greatest effect on the teacher-child relationship, says Hatfield. If one or two specific aspects can be identified, it will be easier to spread this intervention widely among classrooms, especially for busy teachers with little time to spare.
Parents can also be involved, by advocating for their children, says Hatfield. “Engage in the classroom. Ask the teacher how you can do something at home that might link back to the classroom. Have a plan that you both can work on.”
Megan Scudellari is a Boston-based science writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org