Photo by: David Stewart

DU psychology professor Sarah Watamura is currently researching physiological stress in young children, using a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which she obtained last September.

Watamura has been researching childhood stress for the past 12 years.  

“I’ve had a lifelong interest in how stress can literally make a person sick and what can be done about it,” she said.

Watamura’s work involves examining what contributes to a young child needing to activate their physiologic stress to cope with the environment and what consequences come from these responses.  

“While it is known that early life-stress has pervasive effects on physical and and psychological health across the lifespan, little is known about how these effects happen in the body of the young child and, most importantly, what can be done to ameliorate them,” she said.

“Our most powerful finding to date is how much supportive adults are able to buffer young children from environmental stress and therefore prevent the overuse of the child’s own physiologic stress management processes,” she said.

Watamura and her research partners, Amanda Moreno of the Marsico Institute for Early Literacy and Learning and Phil Fisher of the Oregon Social Learning Center,  received the grant after submitting an application last July in response to a Request for Application (RFA).  

A RFA is a solicitation notice from organizations who have grant money that is given to researchers.  

Now, they are in the process of following out with their research plans.

“The first year is intended for coordination with the other five sites across the country, for developing the interventions in collaboration with our community partners and for hiring and training,” said Watamura.

The money will soon be used to implement and test a two-tiered parenting intervention for Early Head Start families experiencing “toxic stress” to reduce the impact of that stress on their infants and toddlers.

Watamura said she hopes the result of her research will help families dealing with a child with chronic stress.

“The best outcome would be to discover that our intervention can help families mitigate the impact of severe and chronic stress on their developing child,” she said.

“However, even if this intervention is not successful, the project will lead to a much greater understanding of stress physiology in young children experiencing toxic stress and how this impacts their development (cognitive, social, emotional) in the first few years of life,” she said.

Watamura has been working with a team of graduate and undergraduate students to complete her research.  In addition, she is teaching a graduate level course called Stress and Health during Development,  two honors psychology courses, childhood development and an advanced seminar.

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