School & District Management

Child-Care Centers Have Positive Impact, Study Concludes

By Linda Jacobson — February 18, 2004 3 min read
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Preschoolers from low-income families who attend center-based child-care programs have stronger school-readiness skills than those cared for in home-based settings, according to new findings from an ongoing study of families affected by the 1996 welfare overhaul.

“Child Care in Poor Communities: Early Learning Effects of Type, Quality, and Stability,” from the January-February edition of Child Development (subscription required), is posted by the Policy Analysis for California Education (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader).

The study, which appears in the January-February edition of the journal Child Development, finds that children attending centers had higher scores than children in other types of care on a test of basic language and cognitive ability. And children attending child-care centers were more familiar with the features of a book and more able to understand the story than the other youngsters were. By age 4½, in fact, they were three to six months ahead of the children in home-based programs.

Moreover, the findings show that the scores on those various measures were the highest among children who had attended their centers the longest. Cognitive gains were not found among children in family child-care homes, which are licensed, home- based centers.

Fewer Social Problems

“The strong positive effects stemming from center care, as well as from quality and stability, suggest that as government invests more resources in child care, greater attention should be paid to the quality of care and ensuring center-based options for more families,” says the study, which was conducted by researchers at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Teachers College, Columbia University.

In both center- and home-based arrangements, children were reported by their mothers to have fewer social problems—such as being aggressive or destructive—if their providers were found to be more responsive, attentive, and warm toward the children, according to the study.

While that result is promising, the researchers say that more needs to be learned about how positive interaction with a child-care provider can lead to less problem behavior from children at home.

The finding also provides a different view of center-based care from what has previously emerged from the long-running Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, financed by the federal government’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Earlier findings from the project, which appeared last summer in Child Development, suggested that the more time children spent in child-care centers, the more likely they were to be disobedient and aggressive in kindergarten.

During a Feb. 6 conference call on the new study with a reporter, researchers, and early-childhood advocates, Bruce Fuller, one of its authors and an education professor at Berkeley, said: “We didn’t find any detriment, any negative effects on kids.”

In this latest study, it was the children attending family child-care centers who showed slightly more aggressive traits than those cared for in less formal arrangements, such as the homes of relatives or family friends. The sample of children in family child-care centers, though, was small—only about 12 percent of the 451 children in the sample.

Regardless of whether children were in a center- or home-based environment, they tended to have more advanced language and cognitive skills if their providers had some college education, the researchers found.

Cautionary Note

Called “Growing Up in Poverty,” the study began in 1997 and focuses on single mothers who entered the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families welfare program in three states: California, Connecticut, and Florida. Under the welfare-reform law enacted by Congress nearly eight years ago, that program, which stresses moving aid recipients into the workforce, replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

The new paper, however, only includes data from the one Florida site, Tampa, and the two California sites, San Francisco and San Jose. Because so few children entered center-based care in Connecticut, data from that site were not included.

Researchers caution the public not to generalize the conclusions to cover all poor children in child-care programs, because the study sample is relatively small.

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