Date of Award

Spring 2024

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)



Committee Chairperson

Eleanor Brown, PhD

Committee Member

Stevie Grassetti, PhD

Committee Member

Steven Holochwost, PhD


Poverty and related stressors have been demonstrated to negatively impact child development. Few studies to date have investigated the relationship between one such poverty related stressor, household chaos, and its impact on cortisol levels-a biomarker for stress- throughout the day. The present study investigated the relationship between household chaos and cortisol in a diverse sample of 288 children attending Head Start preschool. Household chaos was measured by a standardized parent report measure of chaos in the home. Salivary cortisol samples were obtained during four time points across the preschool day on two days at the beginning of the preschool year. Hierarchical linear modeling was used to examine within-persons relation between cortisol and time-of-day, and to examine household chaos as a potential moderator of this relationship. Children who came from homes characterized as high home chaos had a higher early morning cortisol level compared to children with low levels of home chaos, and also showed a steeper decrease in cortisol levels from early morning to midmorning. Children who resided in poverty had a higher morning cortisol level and a steeper decrease from early morning cortisol to midmorning cortisol time points compared to children who resided in households with family income-to-needs ratios above the poverty threshold. Additionally, children who came from households below the poverty threshold showed a greater increase in cortisol levels from midmorning to midafternoon. These results suggest that within a sample facing economic hardship, both poverty and household chaos are related to morning cortisol as well as changes in cortisol trajectories across the preschool day for young children, which underscores the need for polices and programs aimed at reducing poverty and poverty related stressors during the critical developmental period of early childhood.

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