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Pathways from early adversity to later adjustment: Tests of the additive and bidirectional effects of executive control and diurnal cortisol in early childhood

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 May 2019

Liliana J. Lengua*
Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
Stephanie F. Thompson
Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
Lyndsey R. Moran
Boston Child Study Center, Boston, MA, USA
Maureen Zalewski
Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR, USA
Erika J. Ruberry
Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
Melanie R. Klein
Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
Cara J. Kiff
Semel Institute, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Author for Correspondence: Liliana Lengua, Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Box 351525, Seattle, WA98195; E-mail:


Additive and bidirectional effects of executive control and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis regulation on children's adjustment were examined, along with the effects of low income and cumulative risk on executive control and the HPA axis. The study utilized longitudinal data from a community sample of preschool age children (N = 306, 36–39 months at Time 1) whose families were recruited to overrepresent low-income contexts. We tested the effects of low income and cumulative risk on levels and growth of executive control and HPA axis regulation (diurnal cortisol level), the bidirectional effects of executive control and the HPA axis on each other, and their additive effects on children's adjustment problems, social competence and academic readiness. Low income predicted lower Time 4 executive control, and cumulative risk predicted lower Time 4 diurnal cortisol level. There was little evidence of bidirectional effects of executive control and diurnal cortisol. However, both executive control and diurnal cortisol predicted Time 4 adjustment, suggesting additive effects. There were indirect effects of income on all three adjustment outcomes through executive control, and of cumulative risk on adjustment problems and social competence through diurnal cortisol. The results provide evidence that executive control and diurnal cortisol additively predict children's adjustment and partially account for the effects of income and cumulative risk on adjustment.

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