School & District Management

Lessons From Life

By Linda Jacobson — July 12, 2000 16 min read

An ambitious and long-running study of children, which so far has captured the attention of working mothers more than that of teachers or administrators, could soon provide the kind of insights that educators have long been seeking.

Originally designed to focus on child care during the first three years of life, the federally financed project has grown into a broad and unprecedented look at children’s development, family life, and experiences in school.

Enrolled when they were born in 1991—while their mothers were in the hospital—most of the 1,100 children in the study are now about to enter the 4th grade. For each child in the study, the variety and depth of information being collected is simply staggering. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the federal agency that is directing the research, has received enough money to follow the children through 6th grade. And discussions are in the works about tracking the students through their transition to high school.

“Every year this goes on, it becomes more of a national treasure,” says Susan B. Dell, the site coordinator for the project at the University of Virginia here, one of 10 sites around the country where the study is being conducted. “We have things that no one else has.”

Unlike most education research, scholars involved in the project say, the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development—a $10 million-a-year endeavor—will be able to show how children’s early experiences, such as the quality of their child-care settings and their relationships with their mothers, affect their performance and overall development once they enter school.

“We’ll show the K-12 world that something comes before K,” says Robert C. Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia and one of more than 30 investigators on the project.

Early Findings Widely Publicized

Since initial findings from the project were released in 1997, the NICHD study has attracted tremendous media attention.

The researchers’ conclusion that a mother’s relationship with her baby generally has a stronger influence on that child’s development than whether or not the child is cared for by someone else during the day has been cited by parenting magazines to soothe the guilt felt by many working mothers. That was found to be especially true for children who “grow up in families with more economic resources, who have psychologically healthier mothers, and who experience more sensitive mother-child interaction across the first three years of life,” according to one summary of the results.

Some conservative social observers, however, have zeroed in on other findings as proof that children are better off with their mothers during the early years.

For example, the researchers reported that children who spent more time in care during the first three years of life had less positive interactions with their mothers than those who spent less time with other caregivers. That especially seemed to be the case if the children spent more hours in care during the first six months of life.

The research has also provided nuggets for leaders in the child-care field who are working to improve the quality of such care. The findings confirm those from other studies showing that higher-quality care—in which the child-adult ratio is lower, caregivers are trained, and children have safe, stimulating environments—is associated with better outcomes for children, such as less problem behavior and higher cognitive and language skills.

In fact, in terms of cognitive and language development, children in high-quality child care actually had an advantage over those who were cared for only by their mothers, the researchers found. But exclusive care by mothers was found to be better for young children than low- quality care.

The newest findings, released last month in the Journal of Family Psychology, focus on how fathers interact with their young children. The researchers found that fathers deemed to have higher self-esteem and less depression and hostility were more involved in caring for their children than those who had lower self-esteem and less positive personalities. Fathers were also more involved if mothers worked full time.

The next round of results, based on the children at age 4 1/2, are now being prepared for publication. The findings, Pianta says, will focus on the same sets of questions that the earlier papers did, such as the closeness of the mother-child relationship, how much time children spend in child care as well as the quality of those settings, and the youngsters’ social and cognitive development.

It could be at least next year before the public learns anything about how the children are faring in school, but Pianta believes the research will show how experiences in school, including children’s relationships with their teachers and the types of classes they are in, affect their development.

The study, he adds, could also change the way educators make decisions about specific children, such as placing them in certain classes or providing additional services. “It will certainly provide a different perspective on what we think we can predict,” Pianta says.

Frederick J. Morrison, a psychology professor at Loyola University of Chicago and one of the newest researchers to join the project, says he’s particularly interested in looking at how early experiences in the home affect literacy development.

“We’ve implicitly acted as if everybody comes to the school starting line reasonably at the same place,” he says, adding that he wants to know when “meaningful differences” in children begin and the degree to which their social skills can predict their acquisition of literacy.

Similar Studies Are Scant

Other researchers who have examined whether certain early-childhood programs have long-lasting effects are few.

In 1962, Lawrence J. Schweinhart and David P. Weikert of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation began following the lives of 123 low-income African-American children who were randomly assigned to either the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., or to no preschool program at all.

Tracking them through age 27, the researchers examined their school performance, the success of their marriages, their economic status, and whether they had been arrested.

Overall, children assigned to the preschool program had fewer arrests and earned more money as adults than those in the control group. Those who attended the preschool were also more likely to graduate from high school, stay married longer, and own a home; they were less likely to be on welfare or receive other social services.

While the findings have been influential and are routinely cited by those arguing in favor of more government “investment” in early-childhood-education programs, the sample size was very small.

More recently, in 1993, researchers at four universities began following 826 preschool children in child-care centers from four states. Looking at about half those children in 2nd grade, the study found that children who had experienced higher-quality child care as preschoolers were having greater success in school.

More specifically, what is known as the “Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study” showed that children who had attended centers with higher- quality classroom practices had better language and math skills in elementary school than those who had attended centers with lower ratings from the researchers. Children who had close relationships with their child-care teachers were more sociable and behaved better in elementary school than those who were not close to their child-care providers.

But even those two studies began once the children were at least 3 years old. One of the features that distinguishes the NICHD project from other studies is that it began at birth.

“Education doesn’t start in kindergarten. It starts from day one,” says Sarah L. Friedman, the scientific coordinator of the study and a project scientist at the NICHD, which is a division of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Next year, another study of children will also begin at birth. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort 2001, as it is called, is being sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education with assistance from the National Institutes of Health.

While the new study, which will continue at least until the children are in 1st grade, will cover some of the same territory as the NICHD project, it won’t gather the kind of detail on children’s lives that the NICHD researchers are getting.

It will, though, involve a much larger sample, beginning with 13,000 children in 100 locations, in at least 40 states.

For the NICHD study, home visits—which can last a couple of hours—were conducted when the children were 1 month, 6 months, 15 months, 2 years, 3 years, and 41/2 years old. Researchers asked about how the children spent their time, while also keeping an eye on the environment in which they lived, such as how many books were visible in the room and how responsive and comforting the mother was to the child during the interviews.

Even information on ear infections was collected at a certain point with the idea that chronic health problems could affect learning later in life.

Another distinctive feature of the study is that it’s not focusing on a particular type of child-care program.

“We followed the kids into whatever kind of child-care arrangement their parents had made for them,” Pianta says. The only guideline was that if the children were cared for by someone other than a parent at least 10 hours a week, they were considered to be in child care.

When the families were recruited, 53 percent of the mothers planned to work full time, 23 percent intended to work part time, and 24 percent said they were going to stay at home.

Early in the study, researchers visited the children’s child-care providers, if they had them. Those caregivers or teachers were also asked to fill out surveys.

During the home visits, parents and children, and sometimes their siblings, are asked to play certain games or work on an activity together. But their answers are usually not as important to the researchers as how the family members interact with one another.

“The moms are often worried about saying the right thing or making sure the kid is saying the right thing,” says Elise Townsend, a research specialist at the University of Virginia who has worked with the project since last October.

For example, in one activity, the child and the parent are asked to discuss certain “rules” written on individual cards, such as “It’s OK for kids to have messy rooms,” or “Parents should always know what their kids are doing when they are outside.”

As Children Age, Focus Shifts

Now that the children are in school, the researchers follow them through a typical day once a year, recording detailed descriptions of how they spend their time—whether they are engaged in learning or tuned out, whether they are involved in a small group or as part of the whole class, whether the activity or the lesson focuses on basic skills or higher-level thinking, whether the teacher is merely giving managerial instructions, and on and on. Notations are made about the child’s behavior as well as whether the classroom climate is positive or negative.

Teachers fill out lengthy surveys about the sample children, the instructional program, and their own backgrounds. School principals are asked to complete surveys about the population of students they serve and the districts in which they are located.

The families also make periodic visits to a research laboratory, where additional cognitive testing is done and the environment is quieter and more controlled than it is in the home. The researchers have used existing measures, such as the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Ability, but they’ve also devised their own tests to capture other information.

Anyone who conducts a lab, home visit, or school visit for the project undergoes extensive training and must earn a certification from the NICHD to ensure that the questions and activities are as standardized as possible, whether they are being administered in Irvine, Calif., or Wellesley, Mass.

Tests are routinely piloted with children outside the sample to give the research specialists practice and to eliminate any problems with the activities.

Phone calls to the children and their parents are made four times a year so the researchers can keep track of the changes in the children’s lives— whether they’ve moved, if there’s a new sibling, and especially how they are spending their after-school hours.

As the children have gotten older, the interviews and other attention from the researchers have shifted somewhat away from the parents and caregivers and more toward the children themselves.

The youngsters have been asked about their friendships, how they would approach certain conflicts at school, and whether they feel safe in their neighborhoods. New dimensions are continually added to the project to reflect the children’s growth.

“We’re just following the children where they take us,” Dell of the University of Virginia says.

Using nurse practitioners, the researchers will be collecting information about the onset of puberty.

And this year, the children have been asked to strap a small device called an activity monitor around their waists to measure how active the children are during the day over the course of a week.

Next school year, the children will be allowed to bring a friend to one of the lab visits so that the researchers can learn more about their peer relationships. The children, Dell says, are looking forward to that feature of the study.

Other new components are being added to the project that were not originally part of the overall plan.

“The study has begun to feed on itself,” Morrison of Loyola University says.

For example, the researchers are considering an effort to gather data on genetic makeup by collecting either a blood sample or a cheek scrape from the children. Similarly, the study’s steering committee—which includes all of the principal investigators on the project—is talking about drawing on already collected information to look at characteristics in the children that could predict violent behavior.

Despite these new directions, Friedman doesn’t worry that taking the study down some different roads will move the project off course.

“I don’t see the possibility that it’s all going to crumble,” she says.

Questions Raised About Design

Even though the project is one of a kind, some researchers who are keeping close tabs on the NICHD results have raised questions about how the study was designed.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, said poor and minority children are underrepresented in the sample. Many large studies “over sample” those demographic groups to make sure their findings are solid, he notes.

“People have known for a long time that it is somewhat a convenient sample,” says Fuller, who conducts research on child care, particularly in low- income communities. “It was driven by where the researchers live and work.”

When families were recruited for the study, those who could not carry on a conversation in English and those who lived more than an hour from a lab site were excluded.

To the NICHD’s credit, however, the researchers have “tried to shine a bright light on the relatively few low-income families” involved in the study, Fuller adds.

For example, the researchers have found that families who live near the poverty line are more likely to place their infants in child care early, even before 3 months of age.

The investigators, the University of Virginia’s Pianta adds, have provided a lot of descriptive information on the child-care settings where poor children are spending their time.

But he agrees there is more to be learned, and he suggests that other researchers might want to take a more “fine-grained path” in examining that subsample from the study.

Friedman acknowledges that the sample is not nationally representative, but she argues that the study is taking developmental psychology to a new level. For years, she says, researchers have generated studies from sample sizes of 60 to 70 children.

“Science moves in very small steps. Every generation of studies is an improvement over the previous one,” she says. “We are not sociologists. They do wonderful survey work, but they don’t get the in-depth observation and testing that we get.”

Of the 1,100 children in the study, 341 are members of racial or ethnic minorities, and about a third are poor.

While minority families drop out of the study at a higher rate than white ones, the difference is not that large, Friedman says.

The sample of white children dropped from 1,023 in 1991 to 840 at the end of 1st grade, a retention rate of 82 percent. Of the 175 African- American children who began the study, 129 remained after 1st grade, a retention rate of 73.7 percent.

The NICHD also faced criticism for keeping the data closely held instead of allowing researchers “outside the club,” as Fuller calls it, to run their own analyses. The data on the children though age 3 became available in January, and the data from phase two—age 3 to 7—will be released later this year, Friedman says.

“They’ve been awfully slow about it,” says David M. Blau, an economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies child care.

But Friedman says that other researchers are welcome to work with an investigator on the team.

“It’s impossible for the group who started the study to mine all that is there,” she says.

While Blau believes the NICHD researchers have collected far more data than other child-care studies, he doesn’t think the researchers are asking hard- enough questions. Past studies, as well as the NICHD project, have found a correlation between high-quality child care and good outcomes for children. But they haven’t been able to show that that type of child care actually caused those results.

“They could be the kinds of children that would have done well anyway,” Blau says.

Coordination a Challenge

Another feature of the NICHD study is the way the researchers have worked together to decide what they want to know about the children, how they are going to get it, and then to produce the findings.

Researchers from 14 universities are involved in the study. While most were chosen by the NICHD at the beginning of the project, a few new faces have joined the group because of their expertise in studying middle childhood.

Each paper published from the study goes through an extensive discussion and review process that involves the entire group. And the members have been known to be tough on each other, Morrison says.

“When someone gets up to talk about a measure, it’s like a Ph.D. oral defense with professors who are your worst nightmare,” he says.

Nicholas Zill, the director of child and family studies at Westat, a research corporation in Rockville, Md., and the organization that is conducting the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, said the NICHD study has been “very pioneering” in pulling different researchers together to use a common set of instruments.

“That’s very difficult when you have so many academics involved,” Zill says.

Participation in the project, which is now in its 10th year, requires a tremendous amount of time.

The investigators, who divide into small groups, are often working on a number of projects simultaneously—collecting data, analyzing data already collected, writing papers, and thinking ahead toward the next round of visits with the children.

“There are a lot of niches to fill,” says Pianta. “It’s good that we’ve got a lot of people.”

In spite of the demanding schedule and what Pianta calls the “corporate” structure of the project, the members of the group have remained committed to seeing it through.

Morrison adds that the investigators have been able to avoid becoming competitive with one another.

“But that doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements,” Morrison says. “This is not ‘The Waltons.’”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Lessons From Life


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