Child Care And Child Development Research Paper

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Childcare is regular care provided by someone other than a child’s parents. Throughout human history, grandparents, siblings, and relatives have cared for young children, but since about the 1950s, nonparental childcare has become an increasingly visible and prevalent part of the lives of young children in most industrialized societies, largely because of increasing rates of maternal employment and of single-mother families. In the US, by 1997, the majority of infants and preschool children spent some time in childcare; many of them were in full-time care (35 hours per week) (Capizzano and Adams 2000).

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This rapid and dramatic change in the ecology of children’s experience has raised a host of questions about the benefits and risks associated with nonparental childcare. Strong value commitments and assumptions have often influenced the questions asked. In the first wave of research in the 1970s, for example, researchers asked whether ‘day care’ was harmful to children; they rarely considered potential benefits. At the same time, others were investigating the benefits of ‘early childhood intervention’ without considering possible harmful effects. Both groups were examining systems of nonparental care for young children, but the ways they framed questions and the labels they used led to different conclusions.

1. Is Extensive Childcare Harmful?

Why might we expect nonparental childcare to be harmful for children? According to the ‘maternal deprivation’ view, having one primary caregiver (usually the mother) with whom to develop an early attachment relationship is critical to the socioemotional development of young children. This view implies that even very high quality nonmaternal care could impair the development of a secure attachment to the mother if it seriously reduced the amount of time that a child spends with its mother. The most commonly used measure of attachment is the Strange Situation, a laboratory procedure in which children are observed during and after brief separations from their mothers. Secure attachment is indicated when the child goes to the mother and is comforted by her. Insecure attachment may be manifested by avoiding or ignoring the mother or by clinging to her without being comforted.

A large number of early studies concluded that childcare in the preschool years did not have harmful effects on attachment security or later socioemotional development, but the evidence is more mixed with respect to extensive nonmaternal care in the first year of life. Although the majority of children who receive full-time childcare in infancy have secure attachments to their mothers, some studies find elevated rates of insecure attachment when comparing these children to those in exclusive maternal care or part-time childcare (Clarke-Stewart 1989). A major study of 1,153 infants across the US indicated that children who spent extensive time in childcare during the first 3 years of life had mothers who were slightly less sensitive in interactions with them, and that extensive care was associated with elevated rates of insecure attachment only for children whose mothers were insensitive (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network 1997, 1999a, 1999b). As one reviewer concluded, ‘Adverse effects on infant-mother attachment appear to occur only when infant day-care co-occurs with other risky conditions, …’ (Lamb 1997).

It does not appear that time in childcare, in and of itself, has long-term effects on most other aspects of socioemotional development, but children with extensive care from infancy on tend to be more aggressive and assertive and to be less compliant to adults in some settings than are those with less child care experience. Many of these differences are not apparent when children have experienced high quality care (Lamb 1997).

2. Quality Of Care

A second theory predicts that the effects of childcare depend on the physical and social environment provided. Harmful effects on both social and intellectual development might be expected if children receive less attention, affection, interaction, and stimulation from nonparental adults than they would from their parents. This view implies that the effects of care depend on its quality and on the quality of the home environment. Quality can be defined by the processes that occur in the setting: (a) sensitive, responsive, positive interactions of adults with children; (b) intellectually stimulating adult actions and activities, including appropriate language, reading, and play; and (c) toys, materials, and curricula that provide ageappropriate opportunities for learning. Quality can also be defined by structural characteristics, some of which can be mandated by regulatory agencies: (a) small ratios of children to adults; (b) small group sizes; (c) caregiver education and training in child development; (d) sufficient space per child; (e) a safe and clean physical environment; and (f ) continuity and wages of the staff. Structural and process measures are correlated moderately with one another.

Whether process or structural indicators of quality are used, children in high-quality care have higher levels of language and intellectual skills, and perform better on academic tasks than do children in lowquality care. Although this finding is consistent across studies, there is some disagreement about whether quality produces a large enough difference to be socially significant (Lamb 1997, Scarr 1998). In one analysis, the quality of the child care environment and characteristics of the home environment during the first 3 years of life were compared as predictors of school readiness and language skill at age 3. The size of the childcare quality effect was about half that of the family environment, suggesting that childcare makes a substantial contribution to language and academic development (NICHD 1999a, 1999b). Critics have also argued that childcare effects do not last into later childhood, but evidence for long-term effects is beginning to accumulate. In a large study following children from age 4 through grade 3, children who attended higher quality childcare centers performed better on measures of cognitive skills (e.g., math and language abilities) while they were in childcare and, in many cases, through the end of second grade (PeisnerFeinberg et al. 1999).

High quality childcare also predicts social skills with peers and social competence with adults, but the relations between quality and social behavior are weaker than those between quality and cognitive academic performance. Some studies suggest that children’s relationships with their teachers in child care forecast social skills and relations with teachers in elementary school (Howes et al. 1998, PeisnerFeinberg et al. 1999).

One problem in evaluating childcare effects is that families with more resources, better education, and more sensitive parenting styles (to name only a few attributes) place their children in higher quality childcare settings than do less advantaged families. Most recent studies have measured both family and childcare characteristics so that the independent contributions of each could be evaluated, but there is still the possibility that other unmeasured family attributes could affect childcare choices and children’s cognitive and intellectual development.

Experimental studies, in which children are assigned randomly to enriched early care experiences or to control groups, demonstrate clearly that high quality early care has lasting effects on cognitive and academic skills, at least for children from economically disadvantaged families. Experiments avoid possible confounds between family and childcare attributes. The Abercedarian project enrolled children from low-income families in educational childcare from infancy until they reached school age. Children in the treatment group performed better than children in a control group (who received social and nutritional services) on tests of intelligence and school achievement throughout childhood and adolescence (Ramey et al. 2000). Less intensive early intervention programs for children ages 3–5 also produced lasting effects on children’s school progress; participating children were less likely to be retained in a grade or to need special education than were children in control groups (Lazar and Darlington 1982).

The importance of childcare does not end when children enter school. Participation in formal afterschool care programs that provide cognitive stimulation and positive adult interactions is associated with high academic achievement and low levels of behavior problems, particularly among low-income children (Posner and Vandell 1999). Children without adult supervision in the out-of-school hours are at risk for behavior problems and poor adjustment, particularly if they live in low-income families or unsafe neighborhoods (Pettit et al. 1999).

3. Type Of Care

A great deal of childcare occurs in the child’s home or someone else’s home, especially for infants and toddlers. Caregivers can be grandparents, other relatives, or nonrelatives. In the US, a small percentage of infants receive center-based care, but the percentage increases as children reach ages 3–5. Many western European countries have extensive center-based care for children age 3 and over, but care settings for younger children vary considerably (Kamerman and Kahn 1991). The available data suggest both advantages and disadvantages of center-based care relative to home-based care for very young children. Infants and young children in center care show better language and cognitive development by ages 2 and 3 years than those in home-based settings of comparable quality, but they also have more communicable illnesses (e.g. colds and other respiratory illnesses) (NICHD 2000, in press).

Children attending a center or a childcare home with several other children have more experience with peers than do children in other types of home-based care. Children with extensive group experience develop better skills interacting with peers, but their caregivers also rate them higher on negative behavior (e.g. aggression, disobedience) than children in other forms of care (Lamb 1997). For young children, social skills and sociability with peers are often accompanied by a certain amount of aggression; perhaps early contact with peers leads to increases in a range of social behaviors.

4. Do Effects Differ For Children From Different Family Backgrounds?

In the US, where most childcare is funded privately, children from affluent families receive higher quality care than children from families with low and moderate incomes do. In some cases, children from very poor families receive slightly higher quality care than children from families with modest incomes, largely because of publicly funded programs for children in poverty (Phillips et al. 1994). In countries with publicly funded childcare for children from all income levels, average quality appears to be considerably better than it is in the US, and there are not wide discrepancies in quality associated with family income (Lamb 1997).

Some researchers have proposed a compensatory hypothesis: that children from disadvantaged homes might profit from childcare of reasonable or high quality because it provides more opportunities for learning and development than they receive at home. The complementary lost resources hypothesis suggests that children from highly advantaged homes may be harmed by childcare because it provides fewer opportunities than their home environments do. The evidence for these hypotheses is mixed. Almost all of the experiments exposing children to high quality care have included only economically disadvantaged children, and these children clearly profit from such care. Some investigations have found support for the lost resources notion, but most studies support the idea that high quality care provides benefits for children from a wide range of backgrounds (Lamb 1997).

5. Public Policy Issues

5.1 Public vs. Private Funding

Childcare is expensive. In some industrialized nations, public funds pay the great majority of the costs. Sweden, France, and some other countries provide large-scale publicly funded, full-day, preschool programs. In the US, at the other end of the spectrum, limited amounts of public funds are available to low-income families, and tax credits cover a small portion of childcare costs for people earning enough to owe taxes. Overall, parents pay the vast majority of the costs of care. At the same time, childcare workers and staff receive very low wages. In 1997, teachers in childcare centers, many of whom had college degrees, earned from approximately $13,000 to $19,000 per year; salaries of teaching assistants ranged from $10,500 to $12,250 per year (Whitebook et al. 1998). As a result, there is high turnover among childcare workers.

5.2 Family Leave Vs. Infant Care

Care for infants is more expensive than care for preschoolers because they require more concentrated adult attention and they fare best in small groups. Many industrialized nations provide parents with paid family leave as an alternative to supplying center-based infant care (Kamerman and Kahn 1991). In the US, some workers receive paid family leave, but federal law requires only that parents receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave with guaranteed job security and medical benefits. Even this policy applies only to full-time, full-year workers in large organizations. As a result, many infants enter nonmaternal care between ages 2 and 3 months. There is some evidence mothers who return to work very early and whose babies have extensive nonmaternal care are less sensitive during interactions with their infants than are mothers who have more time at home (Clark et al. 1997). It may be more difficult to learn your infant’s signals and respond appropriately when you spend a great deal of time at work starting very early in the child’s life.

6. Conclusion

Most children in modern industrialized societies will spend a significant portion of their early lives in childcare, and many will require such care during the early school years as well. Initial fears that child care per se would be harmful have not been supported, but there is some evidence that extensive care, beginning in early infancy, can make it more difficult for mothers to relate sensitively to their infants. Whether childcare has positive or negative effects on children’s development depends primarily on its quality. Quality is defined by sensitive, responsive, and stimulating caregivers and age-appropriate activities and curriculum. High quality care promotes cognitive, academic, and social development, and its effects last beyond the preschool years. High quality care for children from all economic levels is provided more successfully in countries that make large public investments in early care than in countries that require parents and child care staff to pay the costs of care.

7. Future Directions

Nonmaternal care is here to stay. Policy debates about what is ‘good enough’ care abound, and research is needed to identify thresholds of quality that make large differences, with particular attention to individual child and family characteristics. We understand how early childcare can contribute to cognitive and academic performance better than we understand how it can influence positive social behavior with both peers and adults. New designs, including experiments with random assignment, could help to answer these important questions.


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