Being Optimally Aroused Matters: Effects of a Weak Stress Manipulation on Children’s Executive Functions Are Moderated by Temperament and Age

Regula Neuenschwander, Claudia M. Roebers, Clancy Blair


We tested a core assumption of the bidirectional model of executive function (EF) (Blair & Ursache, 2011)
indicating that EF is dependent on arousal. From a bottom-up perspective the performance on EF tasks is
assumed to be curvilinearly related to arousal, with very high or low levels of arousal impairing EF. N = 107 4-
and 6-year-olds’ performance on EF tasks was explored as a function of a weak stress manipulation aiming to
raise children’s emotional arousal. EF (Stroop, Flanker, Go/no-go, and Backwards Color Recall) was assessed
and stress was induced in half of the children by imposing a mild social-evaluative threat. Furthermore,
children’s temperament was assessed as a potential moderator. We found that stress effects on children’s EF
performance were moderated by age and temperament: 4-year-olds with high Inhibitory Control and high
Attentional Focusing were negatively affected by the stressor. However, it is unclear whether these effects were
mediated by self-reported arousal. Our findings disconfirmed the hypotheses that adverse effects of the stressor
are particularly high in children high on emotional reactivity aspects of temperament and low on self-regulatory
aspects of temperament. Further, 6-year-olds did not show any stress effects. Results will be discussed within the
framework of the Yerkes-Dodson law and with regard to stress manipulations in children.

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Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology   ISSN 1927-0526 (Print)   ISSN 1927-0534 (Online)

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