Early Childhood

New Analysis Bolsters Child Care, Behavior Link

By Linda Jacobson — April 03, 2007 2 min read
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A previously identified correlation between children’s behavior problems and the time they spent in center-based child-care programs during their early years does not fade by the end of elementary school, according to a report from a long-running federally funded study.

While some similar patterns of disobedience and aggression were detected among children who had received other types of care—such as from nannies or in family child-care homes—those problems did not persist past the 1st grade, say authors of the report, published in the March-April issue of the journal Child Development.

The latest study on the child-care/behavior issue, which focuses on 5th and 6th graders, confirms earlier findings from the same Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which the federal government’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development launched in 1991. The children are being studied at least through high school.

Members of the network of researchers working on the overall study—which started out studying about 1,300 newborns—have emphasized that the children’s behavior falls into the range of what is considered normal.

But Jay Belsky, the lead author of the journal article and a psychology professor at Birkbeck College in London, said the findings are significant “because of the large number of children in America who experience extensive and/or low-quality child care prior to school entry.”

As a result, the findings may have “collective consequences” for classrooms, schools, and society at large, Mr. Belsky said.

The Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group, estimates that 2.3 million U.S. children are in center-based child care.

In 2005, researchers from Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, reported similar findings among a different, much larger sample of children—more than 14,000 kindergartners from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a project of the U.S. Department of Education. In that analysis, children who had attended center-based care or preschool had higher rates of poor social behavior, such as bullying and aggression, when compared with those who hadn’t attended centers. (“Studies Find Payoff, Drawbacks Persist for Pupils in Preschool and Child Care,” Nov. 2, 2005.)

Issue of Quality

Still, the NICHD findings also show that the quality of parenting that children receive has a larger effect on their social functioning and academic achievement than whether they spent at least 10 hours per week in out-of-home child-care arrangements.

Over the years, the NICHD project has grabbed headlines and been used by some commentators to argue that mothers’ work outside the home hinders their children’s development. Others, however, have focused on the positive aspects of center-based care, which can include stronger cognitive skills, and have said such findings show that policymakers should focus on improving center quality.

In a press release, Linda K. Smith, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, said that quality “is without question linked to school-readiness skills.”

In this newest study, Mr. Belsky also reports that vocabulary skills among 5th graders remain slightly stronger for children who experienced center-based care, but that the math and reading gains for children who attended high-quality centers faded after 1st grade.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as New Analysis Bolsters Child Care, Behavior Link


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