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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Reactivity to stress and the cognitive components of math disability in grade 1 children MacKinnon-McQuarrie, Maureen


This study investigated the relationship between working memory, processing speed, math performance and reactivity to stress in 83 grade 1 children, 39 with math disability (MD) in comparison to 44 typically achieving (TA) children. The purpose of this study was to investigate the cognitive components of MD and to determine whether stress was interfering with the processes believed to underlie MD. This study is the first to use a physiological index of stress (cortisol levels in saliva) to measure reactivity to stress and learning in children while completing tasks believed to underlie MD. The overall hypothesis was that children with high reactivity would perform more poorly on the working memory tasks believed to underlie MD and that children with MD and high reactivity would exhibit the poorest performance on the tasks that were impaired in children with MD. Nine tasks were administered to assess the core components of MD: working memory for numbers, working memory for words, digits backwards, letter number sequence, digit span forwards, processing speed for numbers and words, block rotation and math tasks. Saliva samples were collected for analysis of cortisol at Time 1 (Ti) as a pre-test baseline and Time 2 (T2) 30-minutes post-test as an index of stress. In addition, on a separate day, samples were collected Time 3 (T3) in the morning and Time 4 (T4) in the afternoon, to establish normal circadian rhythm. Participants were grouped by reactivity levels (high, moderate, and low) for effect size calculation. Children with MD were impaired on the Letter Number Sequence, and Quantitative Concepts tasks. Higher levels of reactivity significantly predicted poorer performance on the Working Memory for Numbers, Working Memory for Words, and Quantitative Concepts tasks. There were no differences between children with MD or TA in cortisol values at any of the times, in reactivity or circadian rhythm. The findings suggest that children with high reactivity may benefit from methods of emotional regulation to reduce reactivity, which may improve learning. Practical implications for educators include attention to the stress response in children, the identification of children with high reactivity and the provision of contextual support.

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