Date of Award

Spring 2023

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)



Committee Chairperson

Eleanor Brown, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Kristen Breit, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Lauren Brumley, Ph.D.


Few studies have examined the impact of trauma for young children facing more generalized circumstances of economic hardship (Zimmerman & Messner, 2013) and an even smaller number have examined how experiences of trauma might influence children’s physiological stress response functioning in preschool context (Lee & Markey, 2022). The present study investigated the relation between trauma exposure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol in Head Start preschool for children facing economic hardship. The hypothesis was that trauma exposure would relate to elevations in baseline cortisol or stress levels. Participants were 50 children, ages 3 to 5, who attended a Head Start preschool. Nearly all children lived in households classified as poor or low-income, defined as less than two times the federal poverty threshold. Caregivers completed a family demographic interview which included The Life Events Checklist for DSM-5 (LEC-5), which was used to measure children’s exposure to trauma. Children provided saliva samples at five different times across the day during the fall and immunoassays tested levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A zero-order correlation revealed a statistical relation between child experience of traumatic events and log cortisol at the start of the preschool day and overall cortisol output. Results of linear regression modeling indicated that trauma exposure statistically predicted variance in child morning cortisol levels after accounting for potential demographic covariates. Implications concern understanding the impact of child trauma exposure on stress levels for children attending Head Start preschool and promoting trauma-informed interventions in early childhood.