Date of Award

Spring 2024

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)



Committee Chairperson

Eleanor Brown, PhD

Committee Member

Susan Gans, PhD

Committee Member

Geeta Shivde, PhD


Poverty circumstances impact the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis. Early childhood dysfunction in the HPA axis, marked by irregularities in cortisol, poses risk for the development of key executive functioning (EF) abilities. No studies have investigated the relation between cortisol and performance-based measures of EF in settings such as Head Start preschool that aim to promote positive outcomes for children facing economic hardship. This pilot study examined EF and cortisol for 50 children ages 3 to 5 years, who attended a Head Start preschool. This study was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a sample size less than half of what was suggested by power analyses. EF was measured by performance-based measures and salivary cortisol samples were obtained at 5 time points across two days near the start of the preschool year. Cortisol output across the preschool day was computed using the standard Area Under the Curve with Respect to Ground formula and several profiles of cortisol production across the day were coded. Given limited statistical power, findings from this pilot study must be interpreted with caution. Inferential results did not demonstrate statistically significant relations between these representations of cortisol and EF but did show some expected relations linking demographic variables to cortisol and EF. Moreover, descriptive results provide meaningful information regarding cortisol and EF within the context of Head Start. This pilot study contributes a foundation for future studies examining cortisol and EF for children facing economic hardship. Implications concern understanding poverty risk and informing intervention and programming.