Equity & Diversity

Study: Effects of Child Care Linger in Early Grades

By Linda Jacobson — June 16, 1999 4 min read
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High-quality child care not only prepares children for school, it can also help them succeed once they get there, according to the latest results of a four-year study that followed children through the 2nd grade.

While there has been much long-term research on early-childhood-education programs serving poor and at-risk children, this study is described as the first to show a link between the quality of child care at typical centers and children’s school performance.

For More Information

A summary of “The Children of the Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study Go to School” is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.fpg.unc.edu/~NCEDL/

“This message underscores the importance of a child’s earliest years--the time when a healthy, nurturing environment can lay the foundation for future success,” U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said last week at a Washington news conference held to release the findings.

“The Children of the Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study Go To School” is the second phase of a landmark 1995 study that found child care at most centers to be poor to mediocre and far below the standards that early-childhood experts recommend. (“Child-Care Study Finds Mediocre Level of Services,” Feb. 8, 1995.)

The project, supported by both federal and foundation grants and involving researchers at four universities, originally looked at more than 400 licensed centers in four states--California, Colorado, Connecticut, and North Carolina. The new findings focus on 418 children from those centers who are now in elementary school.

Relationships Matter

The children who attended centers with higher-quality classroom practices had better language and math skills in their preschool years through 2nd grade, when compared with children in the study who attended centers that provided lower-quality care.

And children who had closer relationships with their child-care teachers had fewer problem behaviors and better thinking skills. Warm teacher-child relationships also had some influence on children’s language and math skills through grade 2, but those effects were not as strong, the researchers found.

The study found an even stronger relationship between high-quality care and the cognitive and emotional development of children whose mothers had a high school education or less.

Some Effects Fade

The research also suggests that the effects of child care--regardless of quality--remain even after a child has moved on to other child-care and education experiences, such as making the transition into kindergarten and the early grades.

Still, the researchers found that some of the influences of child care fade over time.

For example, as the children moved into 2nd grade, the difference between the language skills of children in high-quality centers, compared with those in low-quality centers, decreased. The effects of close teacher-child relationships on children’s behavior also diminished over time.

But one of the researchers cautioned that those findings don’t mean efforts to improve child-care quality are a waste of time.

“Because we don’t solve all the problems of the world doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attack some of them,” said Richard M. Clifford, a principal investigator with the project. He is the associate director of the National Center for Early Development and Learning, a research center based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Changes Recommended

The point of the study’s findings, Mr. Clifford said, is that “if America wants all its children to be ready for school, it must improve the quality of child-care experiences available in this country.”

While there have been improvements, more money for child care is needed from both the public and private sectors, the researchers argued, and the preparation and training of those who work in child-care centers needs to be improved.

The researchers also recommended stronger child-care licensing regulations at the state level and said that states’ efforts to improve the overall system of care, by encouraging accreditation, for example, “are well-founded and should be greatly expanded.”

While calling it a good study, Kathleen McCartney, a professor of psychology and family studies at the University of New Hampshire, raised some concerns over the level of attrition among the youngsters studied. The researchers began with a sample of 826 children and ended up with about half that number; some families tired of participating, and some children changed child-care arrangements after entering the study.

Ms. McCartney, who is involved in another long-term child-care study financed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said the new report should contribute to the discussion of high-quality care and help researchers in their efforts to craft objective measures of child-care quality.

“What is mediocre care,” she said, “and can we develop criteria for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable?”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 1999 edition of Education Week as Study: Effects of Child Care Linger in Early Grades


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