What Are the Long-Term Effects of Childcare on Kids?

7 years ago

It is difficult to write anything objective about childcare when you are a parent who makes use of childcare. I don’t know about you, but there isn’t a day when I don’t question if I’m doing the right thing by allowing my son to be raised 35 hours a week by someone else. I am the norm: mine is one of the eighty-nine percent of children younger than five with employed mothers who is in a regular child care arrangement. When I heard there was a major new study about the long-term effects of care on kids, I needed to read it. And the minute I read the study, I knew what the headline in the media would be “Day care increases risk taking in children, study finds.” 

Teacher supervising pre-school students

Published today in Child Development, the National Institutes of Health-funded study (NICHD) of 958 kids followed from birth through age 15 asks if the effects of early childcare experiences persist into adolescence (they do).

More specifically, the researchers ask if non-relative childcare during the first 4 1⁄2 years of life predicts academic achievement and behavioral adjustment at age 15. The researchers controlled for developmental processes between four ½ and 15 that may mediate the effects of childcare, and they also ruled out effects of gender and familial risk.

This is the first big study to follow a large group of children as they age out of childcare and into high school, and the researchers have been visiting with the cohort ever since the kids were babies. 

“The effects of early child care quality on cognitive-academic achievement and early child care hours on problem behaviors were evident in mid-adolescence, more than a decade after the children had transitioned from child care to elementary school. Effect sizes were small but comparable in size to those detected at earlier ages.”

In general, higher quality childcare was related to higher cognitive/academic performance (even higher than for those kids at home with mom), whereas more hours of childcare (especially by non-relatives) was related to more problem behavior at 15. More experience in center-type care was related to better cognitive skills, but also more problem behavior.  That’s a tough nut for a parent to crack.

As child development researcher Ellen Galinsky writes, “The good news is that children who were in moderate to excellent quality care (defined as any kind of non-maternal care) up until they were 4 1/2 are more likely to have higher cognitive academic achievement at 15. Higher quality care is also linked to less misbehavior or what the researchers call “externalizing behavior.” This study confirms what early childhood educators have been saying for ages: quality matters." 

So, first step, find good care for your kids. There are many Web sites that offer guidelines but I think you must use and trust your gut. What has worked for you?

Continues Ellen, “The bad news is that only two in five of the children were in moderate to high quality settings. Specifically, 17% received care that was high quality, 24% that moderately high quality, 24% that was moderately low quality, and 35% that was low quality. And there is more potentially bad news—longer hours in care are predictive of more risk-taking and impulsivity in the 15 year olds.” 

Effect sizes in the study were significant, but small. With the majority of kids in early childcare, it’s high time that not only do childcare workers get the pay and respect they need, but that the government accepts the new reality for kids and helps parents afford good care but enjoy more flexible work lives so we don’t have to use so much care!

Parents are not helpless in this situation. And it’s not mothers’ fault. The world is changing and the way we raise our kids is changing along with it. It’s happened before, and we will figure it out. After all, 100 years ago, little children still worked in factories. We've come a long way.

The truth, Ellen says, is that we know so much more about childcare than we did 15 years ago, and we know so much more about child development. We know so much more about how to help children manage stress and take on challenges than we did in the 1990s when the children in this study were in childcare. While our world may be even more stressful than in 1991, I think most parents are more attuned to helping kids work through things. 

I asked Ellen what parents should look for in childcare? 

“The most important aspect of childcare is the relationship between the child and the childcare provider. Does the provider really know this child—get down to greet him or her in the morning, know something about what the child might have done at home, and is warm, and caring? Watch the provider interacting with your child.”

“Does the provider listen to the child and build on and extend what the child does? Does the care provider engage with your child about his or her interests, ask the child "wh"—(what, where, why) questions, and respond to your child’s cues”? 

(Disclosure: The Families and Work Institute, of which Ellen Galinsky is President is a client) of Morra Aarons-Mele

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