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Relation of daily patterns in salivary cortisol to peer and teacher relationships and social behaviours in middle childhood Catherine, Nicole L. A.


In the published literature, the association between salivary cortisol and aggressive behaviours in children is equivocal. This has provoked questions about the potential role that other factors, such as supportive relationships with peers and teachers, may play in mediating the association between cortisol and behaviour. This study was designed to investigate the association between various indicators of daily patterns in cortisol (i.e., diurnal slope, average morning, noon, and afternoon cortisol) and aggressive and prosocial (sharing and helping) behaviours in a non-clinical cohort of school-aged children in an everyday classroom context. It was hypothesized that lower cortisol would be significantly associated with higher levels of proactive, reactive, and socially aggressive behaviours and that this association would be uniquely mediated by peer acceptance and teacher closeness. This study also explored the association between cortisol and prosocial behaviours. Salivary cortisol was obtained from children (N = 89, Mean age = 10.4 years, Range, 9.2 – 12.2 years) in a classroom setting three times a day (9am, 12pm, and 3pm) across four consecutive days. Multiple informants (i.e., peers and teachers) completed questionnaires on children’s social behaviour, peer acceptance (peers only), and student-teacher closeness (teachers only). Social behaviours were individually regressed on various indicators of daily patterns of cortisol, controlling for age and gender. Findings revealed inverse relations of afternoon (3pm) cortisol to reactive, proactive, and social aggression. Positive relations of afternoon cortisol to prosocial behaviour, peer acceptance, and teacher closeness were found. A series of independent multiple mediation analyses demonstrated a unique mediating influence of peer acceptance and, separately, teacher closeness. Peer acceptance and teacher closeness uniquely mediated the association between afternoon cortisol and teacher- and peer-reported prosocial behaviours, and teacher-reported proactive aggression. In addition, lower peer acceptance mediated the association between low afternoon cortisol and higher teacher-rated reactive and social aggression. The findings from this research contribute to the growing body of knowledge on associations among children’s daily cortisol patterns, social behaviours, and peer and teacher supportive relationships in a classroom context. These results suggest that an important direction for future research is the incorporation of neurobiological measures of behavioural development into classroom-based research.

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