School & District Management

Study Says More Time in Child Care Connected to Bad Behavior

By Linda Jacobson — April 25, 2001 4 min read
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Children who spend time in child-care centers have better cognitive and language skills than children in other arrangements, including care by their mothers, but those benefits may be coming at a cost, according to the latest findings from a long-running federal study.

The findings, released last week, showed that the more time children spent in any type of nonmaternal child care, the more at risk they were for behavior problems such as aggressiveness and disobedience.

Specifically, 17 percent of the children who had spent more than 30 hours a week in child care by the time they were 41/2 years old were rated by their caregivers, mothers, and teachers as being aggressive toward other children in kindergarten. On the other hand, only 6 percent of the children who were in child care less than 10 hours a week showed the same behavior problems.

Those new results from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development were presented in Minneapolis last week at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, a 5,300-member professional organization based at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “I think the data imply that less time in child care may carry some benefits,” said Jay Belsky, a principal investigator for the NICHD study and a professor at the University of London, Birkbeck College, in England.

The study began in 1991 at 10 sites around the United States with more than 1,300 newborns. The children in the project—which costs about $10 million a year to run—are now in 5th grade, and researchers hope to continue following them.

Findings Fuel Debate

The project’s latest findings are unlikely to resolve the long- standing debate among parents and policymakers over whether child care outside the family’s home is helpful or harmful. In fact, even members of the NICHD research team have differences of opinion about the results and whether they should be used to make policy recommendations.

During a telephone news briefing, Sarah L. Friedman, the scientific coordinator for the NICHD study, described the children with more behavior difficulties as “demanding"—but Mr. Belsky quickly interjected that they were far more than that, saying those children were moody, argumentative, and had explosive tempers.

Still, he said, just because some children demonstrate more behavior problems, it doesn’t mean they are out of control. “I don’t want someone to think we are talking about psychopaths,” he said.

But he added that when the researchers analyze data on the children from 3rd grade, those youngsters might very well be the ones who were having disciplinary problems in school.

Mr. Belsky also said the results call for policies that would help families cut back on the amount of time children are in child care, such as employer policies that would allow longer parental leave after a child is born or more opportunities for part-time work schedules.

Ms. Friedman, however, argued that it was premature for the NICHD to make recommendations. She described extended parental leave as “a quick solution,” and one that could have detrimental effects on the economic security of many families.

Unanswered Questions

Both investigators, as well as others on the research team, agree that they still don’t have an explanation for the reports of children’s bad behavior.

Mr. Belsky speculated that the behavior might have nothing to do with child care itself, but could be due to the way children relate to parents after hours of separation.

Another interpretation, said Kathleen McCartney, a principal investigator for the study and a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, could be that parents with problem-prone children elect to leave them in child care for longer hours. The researchers, she said, need to analyze the data in a “more fine-grained” way to find some of the answers to those questions.

Ms. McCartney noted that most of the children who spent long hours in care did not show behavior problems. And, she said, another important finding was that there was a connection between what policymakers could regulate—such as adult-child ratios in child-care centers—and the outcomes for children.

“Hopefully,” she said, “our data can be used to improve child-care quality in this country.”

Marilou Hyson, an associate executive director of the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, said the findings suggest that training teachers to focus on intellectual and language development is not enough. They should also know how to provide children with activities that “support positive peer interaction,” she said.

One of the objectives of the study is to explore the effects of schooling on children who come from different child-care backgrounds. And an initial look at 1st grade shows great variability in the instruction children are receiving—so much that the researchers say children’s needs could be going unmet.

They found that more than 15 percent of the 1st grade classrooms they observed lacked literacy instruction; and in more than 35 percent of the classrooms, children did not receive feedback from teachers during lessons.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study Says More Time in Child Care Connected to Bad Behavior

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