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Study Seeks To Unravel the 'Complexities' Of Early Child-Care Settings

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Almost all parents have feelings of trepidation when they place infants from birth to age 3 in the care of others while they work.

But research data to date have done little either to allay their fears or to inform their decisions about the best times, places, and conditions for placing infants in child care.

In the next few years, however, parents and policymakers will be able to glean more guidance on those issues from a massive study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in conjunction with 10 research sites across the country.

The "single most important'' contribution of the study, according to Mark Appelbaum, a professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University and the methodologist for the study, will be "to gain knowledge about how child care is actually used in this country'' for children in the birth-to-3 period.

"There is a lot of rhetoric that probably comes more out of social and political philosophy than empirical knowledge,'' Mr. Appelbaum says. "Mothers are made to feel guilty about career/mothering options when there is not a lot out there to base those beliefs and feelings on.''

Launched in January 1991, the N.I.C.H.D. Study of Early Child Care is considered the largest effort of its kind in size and scope. It involves about 1,300 children from families headed by single and married, working and nonworking parents from a mix of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Families are enrolled shortly after a child's birth and expected to participate until the child is 3.

At age 1 month, 6 months, 15 months, 24 months, and 36 months, the children are observed at home and in a wide range of child-care settings. Data are also being drawn from visits to a laboratory playroom, telephone interviews, questionnaires, tests, behavior ratings, and videotapes.

The study, which is now gathering data at the 15-month point, attempts to bridge gaps left by past studies that focused on isolated population groups or narrowly compared children placed in centers with those cared for by parents.

Besides parents' income, education, race, and marital status, the new study factors in such variables as the child's age, sex, health, birth order, and temperament; parental beliefs, attitudes, and expectations; and family "stresses and supports.''

The study aims to explore the interaction between child and family characteristics and the care the child receives at home and in other child-care settings. Its goal, according to a project description, is to "examine the influence of variations in early child-care histories'' not only on a child's social, emotional, language, and cognitive development, but on parent-child and husband-wife relationships and overall family functioning.

Families have been "wonderfully cooperative,'' observes Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, an associate professor of psychology at Temple University and a co-investigator of the project site there. "People really want to know the answers to the questions being asked in this study.''

Beyond 'Good or Bad'

The researchers concede, however, that the answers are apt to be anything but simple.

"Understanding child development is not as simple as some of the [past] research designs make it look,'' says Martha J. Cox, a research scientist and the principal investigator for the project site at the Human Development Research and Training Institute at the Western Carolina Center in North Carolina. "We're trying to capture as many of those complexities as we can to understand the impact of different childrearing conditions on children.''

With the economy strapped for workers and families strapped for cash, "we have a situation in this country where the labor-force participation of mothers is not really going to turn around,'' Ms. Cox notes. "We need to understand what the changes in child-rearing conditions mean for child development.''

"We are no longer asking whether day care is good or bad, which I think is from another era, but what makes for quality environments for our children?'' Ms. Hirsh-Pasek says.

Rather than using the study to "promote or demote day care as an institution,'' adds Alison Clarke-Stewart, a professor in the school of social ecology at the University of California at Irvine and the principal investigator of the study there, the effort should help define which arrangements work best at which ages and under what conditions.

"The best thing I think we could find out,'' she says, "is something about the limits and the threshholds and the characteristics of child care that seem to make a difference in predicting the best kind of child development.''

For example, the study could offer guidance on the optimal time of entry and the number of hours per week for children of different ages to spend in different kinds of care, Ms. Clarke-Stewart says.

For policymakers, Ms. Cox suggests, the data could also help in formulating family-leave policies or stricter child-care standards.

"We should have policies that help us decide as a country whether the standards we have in place now state by state are sufficient, or whether situations are occurring where children are essentially placed at risk by poor quality care,'' she says.

Key Variable Is Quality

While previous studies have suggested that low pay and high staff turnover among day-care teachers compromises child-care quality, the N.I.C.H.D. study will be able to document through direct observation "whether the stability of care is important''--a variable considered particularly critical for infants forming their first attachments to adults, notes Aletha Huston, a professor of human development and psychology at the University of Kansas and the principal investigator of the study at that site.

A well-known tool used in previous studies to determine the strength of such attachments, she notes, is a technique called the "strange situation,'' which monitors children's reactions in a laboratory situation in which a mother leaves and then returns.

While the technique has a "good history'' of predicting social competence at later ages, she notes, some of the conclusions drawn from it have been called into question. Some hypothesize, for example, that reactions classified as "insecure attachments'' among children regularly cared for by someone other than the mother may simply signify greater independence.

The N.I.C.H.D. study will use the strange situation as a means of comparison with past studies, but it will also use other measures of attachment.

"We'll zero in on the relationship between the child and care providers, including the mother, from different perspectives and with different methods,'' says Sarah L. Friedman, a health-scientist administrator at the N.I.C.H.D. who is the coordinator of the study and a member of its 14-member steering committee.

A key challenge will be to explore how such factors as the amount of time children spend in care, physical characteristics of the setting, and staff-child ratios interact with the quality of involvement between caregivers and children, Mr. Appelbaum of Vanderbilt notes.

The quality of the care, Ms. Huston says, is likely to emerge as "the major variable that predicts behavior.''

"Everyone in the field agrees that it's the quality of the care kids get that's important, not whether it comes from the mother or someone else,'' she says.

Diverse Perspectives

Ms. Friedman notes that the project was inspired by an "infant day-care summit meeting'' of leading child-care researchers convened in October 1987 by the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs.

The researchers envisioned "parallel longitudinal studies, in which investigators in different parts of the country could use some common measures in their research,'' Ms. Friedman explained in a 1990 article on the study.

"What we all find exciting,'' Ms. Hirsh-Pasek says, "is that investigators of such diverse perspectives are all working together toward a common goal.''

The first reports about the effects of various child-care arrangements on children's development are not expected until about 1997, Ms. Friedman says. But, she adds, data on the number, variation, and frequency of changing child-care arrangements may begin to be published in about two years.

While the study is focused primarily on mothers, a substudy is examining fathers who are the primary care providers while mothers work, Ms. Friedman says. Six sites have a special grant to gather more data about fathers.

The biggest limitation of the current study, many of the researchers note, is that it ends at age 3, too soon to gauge the potential effects of child-care arrangements on children's school performance.

But, Ms. Friedman indicates, a follow-up study is being contemplated.

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