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There has been much coverage in the media lately about the latest findings from the longitudinal study of day care conducted by Early Child Care Research Network. I was somewhat familiar with this study since some professors at my alma mater were involved in the study over the years. It’s one of the first studies of it’s kind to examine the long-term effects of day care on children’s development and socialization in a large, nationally representative sample. That means that about 1,600 kids from all ethnic and economic backgrounds were studied from the time they were born in 1991.
The main take-home finding of this latest follow-up study is that kids who were in day care for longer hours as preschoolers are more likely to show impulsive and risk-taking behavior as 15-year-olds. Now, the findings are not huge, even the researchers will tell you that. But when you are dealing with human behavior (especially over the course of 15 years), research findings are rarely huge in their magnitude. However, it is important to remember that the fact that any correlation is seen between day care experience in early childhood and behavior as a teenager is pretty impressive. Think of all the factors that a child experiences in their first 15 years of life–parents, siblings, childcare, teachers, classmates, etc. Additionally, these findings were seen in a ethnically and economically diverse sample. That means that the effects of day care are seen despite variations in family income, education, etc.
The other primary finding of the study is that quality matters. The quality of the day care greatly influences what type of long-term effects are seen among children. The study showed that children who went to a moderate to high-quality day care as toddlers had high levels of academic achievement and fewer behavior problems compared to those in low-quality day care. So, what’s the concern? The study found that only a small percentage of children are in high-quality care. Here’s the breakdown of the 1,600 children in the study:
– 17% in high-quality care
– 24% in moderately high-quality care
– 24% in moderately low-quality care
– 35% in low-quality care
That means that approximately 60% of the children in the study (and presumable the country if you extrapolate) are in less-than-optimal care each day. This in itself is a bit concerning, but it may be more problematic in the future when these youngsters reach adolescence and peers become a greater influence. Some researchers worry about a “contagion effect.” That is when a few children who have more risk-taking tendencies begin to influence their peers. Psychologist Jay Belsky described in this way, in a recent LA Times article,
In classrooms and peer groups populated by kids who may be just a little more impulsive or risk-taking, “these small effects end up being spread and bounce off each other,” said Belsky in an interview. “The dynamic becomes, ‘I dare you to take a risk, you dare me to take a risk.’ “Nobody knows what the threshold here is, when the little becomes a lot,” he added.
I think the results of this study are definitely food for thought in considering what value we, as a society, place on the care of our children. Many families rely on day care facilities in order to work outside the home to financially support their families. This is a very important service, yet many day care workers are poorly paid and ill-prepared for their job. If we as a society expect our children to develop into competent adolescents, we need to ensure that they receive the best care possible. Hopefully this study will make policymakers (and parents) more aware of the importance of high-quality day care.
Wondering what high-quality day care looks like? Here are a few great resources:
Mind in the Making article