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Classrooms are key social settings that impact children's mental health, though individual differences in physiological reactivity may render children more or less susceptible to classroom environments. In a diverse sample of children from 19 kindergarten classrooms (N = 338, 48% female, M age = 5.32 years), we examined whether children's parasympathetic reactivity moderated the association between classroom climate and externalizing symptoms. Independent observers coded teachers’ use of child-centered and teacher-directed instructional practices across classroom social and management domains. Children's respiratory sinus arrhythmia reactivity to challenge tasks was assessed in fall and a multi-informant measure of externalizing was collected in fall and spring. Both the social and the management domains of classroom climate significantly interacted with children's respiratory sinus arrhythmia reactivity to predict spring externalizing symptoms, controlling for fall symptoms. For more reactive children, as classrooms shifted toward greater proportional use of child-centered methods, externalizing symptoms declined, whereas greater use of teacher-dominated practices was associated with increased symptoms. Conversely, among less reactive children, exposure to more teacher-dominated classroom management practices was associated with lower externalizing. Consistent with the theory of biological sensitivity to context, considering variability in children's physiological reactivity aids understanding of the salience of the classroom environment for children's mental health.
Entry into kindergarten is a developmental milestone that children may differentially experience as stressful, with implications for variability in neurobiological functioning. Guided by the goodness-of-fit framework, this study tested the hypothesis that kindergarten children's (N = 338) daily cortisol would be affected by the “match” or “mismatch” between children's temperament and qualities of the classroom relational context. The robustness of these associations was also explored among a separate sample of children in third grade (N = 165). Results among kindergarten children showed negative affectivity and overcontrolled temperament were positively related to cortisol expression within classrooms characterized by lower levels of teacher motivational support, but there was no relation between temperament and cortisol when motivational support was higher. Among third-grade children, negative affectivity was marginally positively related to cortisol at lower levels of teacher–child closeness and unrelated at higher levels of teacher–child closeness. Findings suggest children's cortisol expression depends on the extent to which specific temperamental characteristics “fit” within the relational and contextual qualities of the classroom environment, particularly as children navigate the new roles and relationships that emerge during the transition to formal schooling. Developmentally informed neurobiological research in classrooms may contribute to tailored programmatic efforts to support children's school adjustment.
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