What is the lasting impact of child care as children grow?

The children in the largest and most comprehensive longitudinal study of child care are now teenagers! Today, May 14th, a report on how these children are doing was released.

When these children were born in 1991, more than 1000 of their parents agreed to participate in a National Institutes of Health study that would attempt to address the burning question that so many other families and policy makers had: how does child care affect children’s development over time?

As Deborah Lowe Vandell of the University of California, Irvine, who is the lead author of today’s study, said to me, the surprising finding is that there are findings for such a large and economically diverse group of children! Child care does affect children’s development into their teens. There is good and bad news in the results.

The era in which this study–the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development–was conceived and funded was an era of intense turmoil. It’s an era I now think of as the Mommy Wars. Women were seen making a choice–to work or not to work, as if these were two separate camps and as if choice was real or possible for many of them. A debate swirled in the media, in workplaces and around kitchen tables: should women work, shouldn’t they, and would they be harming their children if they used child care?

At that time, there were a few small-scale studies but almost nothing big, almost nothing that looked at child care quality, and almost nothing that followed children over time. And there were some riveting cautionary tales in the media, such as a toddler who fell into an uncovered well at the home of her unlicensed child care provider in Texas in 1987 and a special report by Diane Sawyer on Prime Time Live, who took hidden cameras behind closed doors in child care programs and showed families that they didn’t really know what was going on after they said goodbye.

Finally, the debate got so intense that a professor at Yale, Ed Zigler, called a meeting in Washington, DC that brought together a group of academics to see if we could find any common ground in the existing studies. I was a participant in the meeting because of the extensive work I have done on the impact of child care on children. The meeting ended with a call for a new study, and the NICHD study was launched.

Today is a very different world from 1991. Our studies at the Families and Work Institute show that women are in the workforce in equal numbers to men, bring in 44% of family income, and 26% of women earn at least 10% or more than their husbands. Working among mothers is much less likely to be seen as a choice, and more as a way of caring for families, especially in this time of recession. Although our data also show that far fewer people think that working mothers are bad for children than they did in the past, parents worry today like they did 20 years ago.

The findings of this study provide good news, bad news, and a call to action. The good news is that children who were in child care (defined as any kind of non-maternal care) that was of moderate to high quality up until they were 4 1/2 are more likely to have higher cognitive academic achievement at age 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 child care matters.

But the bad news is that only two in five of the children in the study were found to be in settings that were of moderately high to high quality. Specifically, 17% received care that was high quality, 24% that was 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.

Given these findings, parents are asking, “What should we look for in child care?”

The most important aspect of child care is the relationship between the child and the child care provider. When researchers (the NICHD researchers and others) conduct studies of quality, first and foremost, we look at relationships, asking:

  • Does the provider really know this child? Does the provider get down to greet him or her in the morning, and know something about what the child might have done at home? Is the provider warm and caring? The measure researchers use is even called “sensitivity.” As a parent, look at the children in the child care setting to see if they seem to like the provider and enjoy being with her or him.
  • Is the provider “responsive?” Does the provider listen to the child and build upon what the child does to help the child learn? For example, if the child is interested in bugs or trucks, does the provider talk with the child about these interests, show the child books about these interests, and ask the child “wh”–(what, where, why) questions to extend the child’s thinking? As a parent, you can simply watch children to see if they are being actively engaged in learning. And one hint: if the pictures on the wall are all exactly the same, then you know that it is the provider’s work–and the children aren’t having their own interests promoted.

Although the finding that longer hours in care are predictive of more risk-taking and impulsivity in children is worrisome, I think this can be seen as a call to action rather than bad news. Today, 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 child care. I know this because I have spent the past eight years looking at child development research for my book Mind in the Making. For example:

  • We can help children learn to calm down when they are upset and stressed. With younger children, this can be the age-old techniques of cuddling and holding, but there is a great deal of research on older preschool children that says that helping them learn to resist the temptation to go on automatic affects their impulsivity. Even simple games, like Simon Says Do the Opposite can promote this skill.
  • We can also help children learn to take the perspectives of others. Studies have found that aggression and conflict are linked to an inability to understand why others behave as they do. So asking children to talk about other people’s feelings, thoughts, likes, and dislikes (“what were they thinking?”) in the stories they listen to or in everyday conversations can help reduce aggression.

These simple everyday activities promote essential life skills that are all based, in one way or another, in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and all involve “executive functions” of the brain. Studies are increasingly finding that executive functions are as important as IQ because they enable children to use what they know. These skills can help children in the early years (and in the teen years too). So that’s the call to action. We know how to and should improve the quality of child care!

For additional guidelines on how to find high quality care, visit www.childcareaware.org. For additional information on executive functions of the brain and life skills, visit www.mindinthemaking.org.


Photo/image by: USACE Europe District / Flickr