Earlier this year, a study that seemed to say something astonishing hit the news: that the quality of formal child care that youths experience at young ages affects their academic achievement and behavior as teenagers. Kids who got high-quality child care did better, even a decade later.
It seemed to be more evidence that children from low-income families will suffer achievement gaps that they can never make up.
Yet, as with many studies, the findings are more nuanced than the reports about them.
While the report calls the findings about academic achievement and problem behavior “significant,” it also says the differences among the youths were “small.” And no one claims that the child care causes certain behaviors. Parenting, they say, still matters most of all.
Before delving into the findings, some background is in order to help understand what this study means:
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act into law, requiring adults receiving public assistance to get a job within two years, or lose their benefits. Soon after the law went into effect, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) – which since 1991 had been conducting the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, involving more than 1,000 children from the age of one month, began reporting some troubling outcomes associated with child care.
One of the first reports, in 1998, found that the more patched together a family’s child care arrangement was, the more problem behaviors the mothers reported about their children. In addition, caregivers reported more problem behaviors with children who started child care at older ages. The report did, however, find positive effects from high-quality child care.
Even though the authors repeatedly have cautioned that family influence outweighs the effects of child care, many news reports focused on the child-care effects, which many people used to further their social and political views: to push for keeping moms at home, or for more child care help for single working mothers.
Today, people still want to know: Does child care help or harm kids?
Fortunately, NICHD researchers continue to document their myriad findings from what is now the longest and largest child care study conducted in the United States; they have published almost 250 papers. The results consistently link higher quality care to better cognitive skills at various age markers. At the same time, infants and toddlers who spend more than 30 hours a week in non-relative child care experience more problem behaviors in preschool and elementary school than those cared for by relatives. The newest NICHD report looks at how early experiences in child care correlate with certain adolescent behaviors.
Unlike other studies that focus on child-care effects for at-risk children of economically disadvantaged families, NICHD’s sample also includes middle class and affluent children from across the country.
The latest study found that early child care quality continues to predict academic achievement in teenagers, as measured by select Woodcock Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery-Revised sub-tests. Think of it as an uphill line graph: Lower quality child care associates with lower levels of academic achievement and higher quality correlates to higher achievement.
Interestingly, a sleeper effect has been discovered within this quality-achievement link. Teenagers who experienced high-quality child care show significantly higher academic achievement levels than their counterparts who had moderate-quality child care – an effect that does not show up in the younger ages.
That straight-line correlation becomes more like a curved rubber band, with a sagging center and one end reaching toward the high point of the graph. The quality of child care creates an expanding achievement gap between the groups that experienced the highest- and lowest-quality care. However, the spread on standardized tests scores between children with the highest- and lowest-quality child care was just five points.
The difference between the moderate- high and low-quality child care groups was even smaller. Researchers are not sure why this achievement difference was not detected at earlier ages. One explanation suggests that higher quality child care encourages a sense of personal responsibility that blossoms in high school, when youths become more responsible for their educational achievement than they were in elementary or middle school.
Children who spend 30 or more hours in non-relative child care during their first 4½ years of life reported significantly more risk-taking and impulsivity by age 15. Risk-taking behaviors include drug/alcohol use, stealing, using or threatening to use a weapon and engaging in behaviors that threaten personal safety.
At the same time, teens who had high-quality child care report significantly lower externalizing behaviors. Using the Youth Self Report, these teens indicated fewer instances of delinquency or aggression, such as “I steal from places other than home.”
Child care centers
NICHD also examines the effect of the type of child care setting: child care centers, nanny-type child care, and family-run, in-home day care.
At earlier ages, the type of setting consistently links to academic achievement as well as behavioral outcomes. The current study, however, does not continue to see the positive relationship between time spent in a child care center and higher academic achievement. Nor does a relationship continue to exist between center care and problem behaviors at age 15. The quality and amount of time spent in child care appear to trump the effects the type of child care has on later adolescence.
Other risk factors
Previous research reveals differences in child care impact based on socioeconomic status. Low-income children have been found to gain an academic “compensatory effect” from more hours of child care, while middle-class children suffer an academic “lost-resource effect.”
Statistically controlling for certain factors, NICHD attempts to eliminate the possibility that family variables affect results that are otherwise attributed to child care. The study does not detect differences in any of the academic or behavioral outcomes, even when holding constant such family factors as the child’s gender, the presence of a husband or partner, income, maternal depression and observed parenting quality. In other words, whether family situations (low-income, poor parenting, etc.) are included in the formula or excluded, the positive connection remains with the quality of child care and the negative connection continues with the number of hours spent in it.
What it means
Before parents begin taking out loans to pay for high-quality child care, the report’s authors make a number of points regarding their findings.
As noted, the achievement and problem behavior effects, while statistically significant, were “small by conventional standards.” And while the study examines how certain child care arrangements are statistically linked to subsequent behavioral and academic outcomes, researchers stress that their findings cannot explain whether child care causes these behaviors.
What’s most fascinating is not the magnitude of the results but the fact that correlations can still be measured 10 years after child care has ended, even after statistically controlling other moderating factors.
Margaret Burchinal, one of the lead authors of the study, recently stressed during a discussion moderated by The Washington Post, “Parenting appears to matter more than child care, so the most important thing parents can do is make decisions that allow them to feel financially and emotionally secure so they can be the best parents they can be.”
Study: Do Effects of Early Child Care Extend to Age 15 Years? Results from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development
Authors: Deborah Lowe Vandell, Jay Belsky, Margaret Burchinal, Laurence Steinberg and Nathan Vandergrift.
Study Focus: To discover whether a relationship exists between the quality and amount of time spent in early, non-relative child care, and academic and behavioral outcomes in adolescence.
Type of Evaluation: A longitudinal, nonexperimental field study that tracks the effects of parent-elected child care choices on social, emotional, intellectual and language development; behavioral problems and adjustment; and physical health.
Sample Size: Families who had given birth within 24-hour time periods in Arkansas, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin were screened for eligibility. A one-month home follow-up recruited 1,364 families to participate. Seventy percent of the original sample participated in the most recent follow-up. In addition to comprehensive evaluations of each teenager, parents and teachers completed assessments for the 958 participants still in the study.
One-quarter of the participating mothers have only a high school diploma. Twenty-two percent of the families are minorities.
Evaluation Period: Since 1991, NICHD has been following a cohort of children into adolescence. University research partners evaluated participants periodically throughout infancy and the preschool years, as well as annually from kindergarten through sixth grade. Assessments include interviews; questionnaires; standardized testing; and trained observers going into homes, child care sites and schools. The most recent assessment occurred in 2006, when study participants reached the age of 15.
Funders: The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The cost of this study, one of more than 200, cannot be broken out from overall cost figures.
Availability: The original journal article appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Child Development, published by the Society for Research in Child Development. The manuscript can be found at http://nieer.org/pdf/Effects_of_Early_Child_Care_Extend_to_Age_15.pdf. Additional