Study: A Downside to Day Care?

A new study, published in the March/April 2007 issue of Child Development, has concluded that kids who spend more than two years regularly attending day-care centers show slightly more behavioral problems in kindergarten through sixth grade than those that do not. Are There Long-Term Effects of Early Child Care? is drawn from data collected by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which includes 1,364 children at 10 sites around the country who have been tracked since birth (and are now aged between 15 and 16). NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo spoke with Margaret Burchinal, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina and a co-author of the study about what these findings mean for parents of young children. Excerpts:

Newsweek: Most of the kids in your study spent a year or two at a day-care center prior to entering kindergarten. How did that affect their behavior later?
For those kids who have one or two years of day care, their level of problem behavior is typical. For children who spent more than that in center-based care, teachers report slightly more disruptive behaviors than are typical. In other words, the more time in day care, the more likely these kids showed problem behaviors.

Any idea why?
We did not look at why in this study, but other people have looked at this question and have some ideas. [One suggested reason is that] there's been a move to make child-care programs more academic. Kids are supposed to start school knowing numbers and letters before kindergarten, and this process gives them less free time and forces them to do a lot more large-group activities and worksheets. It's really hard for a 3- or 4-year old to sit and listen to the teacher talk for extended lengths of time. This may lead to more acting out. Another hypothesis is that child-care centers tend to not pay their staffs very well and there's a lot of turnover. It's very hard to keep well-trained staff members, and teaching good behavior to a group of kids requires a lot of training.

And you found that kids who never go to day care are the most well-behaved?
Yes, they show the fewest problem behaviors.

How did children with nannies fare?
We saw no relationship between the amount of child care--whether by a nanny, a family member, or a babysitter--to how the child behaved in kindergarten through 6th grade. Interestingly, we also found that staying home with mom was statistically neither an asset nor a detriment in terms of academic outcomes and behaviors.

But your findings say high-quality parenting is an even better predictor of a child's behavior and academic performance than their child-care setting. What makes parenting high quality?
The degree to which parents enjoy being with children, are responsive and sensitive to children, talk to their children, and expose their children to ideas is the strongest predictor of children's academic success as well as their behavior at school.

So what is the big take-away from this study?
The take-home message is parents of young children need to figure out what makes their lives work so they can be the kind of parent they really want to be with their children. For some parents that might mean having both parents work so they can have economic security. For other parents it might mean making the decision to cut back on work so they can have the emotional security of knowing they were the only ones caring for their children. Parenting matters far more than any single decision about child care--or all the decisions put together. Quality parenting predicts school success.

Yes, your data also shows that children who experienced high-quality early child care of any kind display better vocabulary scores in 1st through 5th grade. Is that right?
Yes, children who attend high-quality programs, whether at day-care centers, in their own homes, or with a babysitter, had better vocabularies through the 5th grade.

How did you determine the quality of a child-care setting?
It's parallel to our measure of parenting: How responsible and attentive a caregiver was with the child? Did the child get a lot of attention? Did the caregiver seem to enjoy being with the child? Did she seem responsive and sensitive in interactions with child?

How can parents determine the quality of a child-care setting themselves?
The best thing to do is to visit the places you're thinking of putting your child and while you're there, watch how the caregiver interacts with the other children. Not your child. Because they'll be really attentive while you're there. But if they're really attentive and really seem to enjoy interacting with the other children, then that's a good indicator of how they will interact with your child when you're not there. On the other hand, if they're not paying attention and there's no interaction with anybody, this is not a good thing. You should also look to see how the other children are interacting with each other to see if there are excessive negative behaviors.