The Effects of Stress, Temperament, and Age on Executive Functions

by Megan Zhang

Stressful situations are often unavoidable, even for children. But every child reacts slightly different to stress–factors such as a child’s age and temperament may affect how the stress impacts the child. Thus, the same stressful situation may have widely varying impacts on various children. Some children may have highly impaired executive functions (cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, and planning) when placed in stress-arousing environments, while other children may not. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, performance is curvilinearly related to arousal–in other words, very low and very high levels of arousal or stress can both impair executive functions, while a moderate level of arousal can actually improve them.

In the paper “Being Optimally Aroused Matters: Effects of a Weak Stress Manipulation on Children’s Executive Functions Are Moderated by Temperament and Age,” Neuenschwander et al explore the relation among age, temperament, emotional arousal, and performance on executive function tasks in children around the time that they transition to school. In the study, stress was induced in half of the subjects by imposing a mild social-evaluative threat. The children’s temperaments were also assessed as a potential moderator that may affect outcomes.

Neuenschwander et al found that the effects of stress on children’s performance on executive function tasks were moderated by age and temperament. Interestingly enough, the younger children (four-year-olds) who had high inhibitory control and high attentional focusing were most negatively affected by the stressor. This was a surprising finding, as the hypothesis had originally predicted that adverse effects of the stressor would be stronger in children high in emotional reactivity and low in self-regulation.

The findings were interpreted as evidence of the Yerkes-Dodson law. The inverted U-shape of the relationship between executive functions and emotional arousal suggests that a moderate amount of arousal can be energizing, while too much or too little arousal may result in deteriorating executive functions.

This paper was published in the Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology in April 2014 and is available online here.

Regula Neuenschwander is a visiting post-doctoral research associate at the Neuroscience and Education Lab. To read more of her publications, click here.