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Biological Sensitivity to Context: The Interactive Effects of Stress Reactivity and Family Adversity on Socioemotional Behavior and School Readiness


  • This study was supported by a grant (R01 MH62320) from the National Institute of Mental Health. Preparation of this manuscript was in part supported by a Killam Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the University of British Columbia to the first author. Dr. Obradović is the Great-West Life Junior Fellow in the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research's Experience-Based Brain and Biological Development Program and Junior Fellow Academy. Dr. Boyce is a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and holds the Sunny Hill Health Centre/BC Leadership Chair in Child Development at the University of British Columbia. The authors acknowledge the substantive contributions made by Dr. Abbey Alkon to the development of our stress reactivity paradigm and the analysis of reactivity data. We are also appreciative of the school principals, teachers, children, and families who participated in the reported study and the numerous research assistants who collected and scored these data.

concerning this article should be addressed to Jelena Obradović, Stanford University, School of Education, 485 Lasuen Mall, Stanford, CA 94305-3096. Electronic mail may be sent to


This study examined the direct and interactive effects of stress reactivity and family adversity on socioemotional and cognitive development in three hundred and thirty-eight 5- to 6-year-old children. Neurobiological stress reactivity was measured as respiratory sinus arrhythmia and salivary cortisol responses to social, cognitive, sensory, and emotional challenges. Adaptation was assessed using child, parent, and teacher reports of externalizing symptoms, prosocial behaviors, school engagement, and academic competence. Results revealed significant interactions between reactivity and adversity. High stress reactivity was associated with more maladaptive outcomes in the context of high adversity but with better adaption in the context of low adversity. The findings corroborate a reconceptualization of stress reactivity as biological sensitivity to context by showing that high reactivity can both hinder and promote adaptive functioning.