Jelena Obradović on Resilience in Early Childhood

By Stephanie Swenson, Assistant Teacher

Generally speaking, children who experience more adversity are more likely to have problems later. But some children don’t follow these trends. One of Stanford’s new faculty members, Jelena Obradović, PhD, explores why some children who face adversity come through relatively unscathed.

“What are these systems that are allowing children to show high levels of functioning despite risk and adversity while other kids falter or have problems?” asked Obradović, an assistant professor of education and faculty advisor for the Child and Adolescent Development program. Obradović, who joined the Stanford faculty in 2009, delivered a guest lecture during Bing’s winter staff development day, February 16, 2010. She spoke on adaptive functioning in the context of adversity.

There are two adaptive systems, Obradović explained, that determine how humans react to novel situations and changes in their environment. These two systems, the stress-response system and the self-regulation system, affect how children react to adversity, and thus can help explain how resilience develops. During her talk, Obradović highlighted two of her studies: The first study focused on the stress-response system and the second on self-regulation.

Obradović explained that studying stress response is important because it helps us understand why some children are just more susceptible to environmental influences and why others are less susceptible. Further, she asked, could there be a biological reason children respond differently in different contexts?

For many years, researchers explained behavior with a stress-diathesis model. This model predicts that children who are highly reactive to stress and have a high level of adversity are going to fair worse and have far more problems in life than those with low stress reactivity. But this model does not account for children who have high stress reactivity but do not experience much adversity, said Obradović. Nor does it explain resilient children who have high levels of adversity but develop little to no behavioral problems.

Obradović then set out to test a new model, proposed by psychologists W. Thomas Boyce, MD, and Bruce Ellis, PhD, (published in Development and Psychopathology in 2005) that suggested instead of the stress-diathesis model, there simply might be children who are just more sensitive to context; children who are more affected by environment, regardless of quality. In a study of 338 children in the East Bay, kindergarteners’ stress reactivity was measured in a variety of age-appropriate tasks. Obradović and her colleagues then tested whether the reactivity interacted with a child’s family environment to predict how well the child was doing in kindergarten, as reported by the teachers, parents, and children themselves. Their study suggested strong support for reframing stress reactivity as biological sensitivity to context, meaning that some children’s behavior is strongly affected by their environment, whether positive or negative. This is relevant to Bing teachers, said Obradović, because it highlights how Bing’s positive environment can help with future school success, especially in biologically reactive children who are highly sensitive to context.

In her second study, Obradović tested the self-regulation system, a child’s ability to regulate his own emotion, behavior and more. Defining effortful control as the ability to shift control/attention and inhibit certain behaviors, Obradović explained that this ability to regulate behavior and attention underlies many age-salient domains, such as social competence and academic performance. Obradović’s study demonstrated that effortful control was an important marker of early school success in homeless children. This suggests, she argued, that good self-control in young children who are faced with adverse situations predicts success in a variety of areas, including academic performance, social competence and non-aggressive behavior. Because children can be trained to have better effortful control, Obradović’s results are significant because it suggests that simply helping children with their effortful control can have a broad impact in a variety of seemingly separate areas in which they might be struggling.

Concluding her talk, Obradović spoke about the options for expanding her research here at Stanford and her excitement in having joined the university. She then answered questions from the Bing staff members, who were very interested in how applicable her research was to them. The staff thoroughly appreciated learning more about cutting-edge research in the field of early childhood education and development.