Quality Child Care Can Carry Social Benefits For Kids

January 23, 1999

ANAHEIM -- If the quality is there, children in all varieties of child care show greater confidence with peers and more compliance with adults, according to one of the most expansive studies ever of child care in America.

The multi-year study has also produced a comforting, if not surprising, conclusion: That family influences are the strongest in a child's life.

Deborah Lowe Vandell, an educational psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented findings Saturday from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study of early child care, up to age 3.

The large and diverse study is attempting to bring some consensus to a divisive issue: How does child-care outside the home impact child and family development? The NICHD study includes 24 investigators and 1,350 children and is the first to take a truly comprehensive look at the question.

Results from phase one of the study -- which looked at children up to age 3 -- were summarized Jan. 23 at proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While Vandell reported finding for social development questions, others reported on the mother-infant bond, language and cognitive skills, and the overall quality of child care in the United States.

The study also makes an effort to reflect most of the real-world child-care arrangements. In addition to mother-infant care, the study examines care by fathers, by grandparents, by home-based child care and by professional centers.

"I think what we have been finding has been reassuring to a lot of parents," said Vandell. "The most important finding is that the family influences -- even for those kids in child care outside the home -- is the dominant influence on the child."

In the study of social skills, Vandell said some investigators expected the total hours in child care to make a difference, since past studies suggested that the prolonged times made children less cooperative and more aggressive. The NICHD researchers did not see that effect, at least in children's first three years.

What they did find was quality matters, Vandell said. The social attributes of children were directly related to the skill of caregivers. The researchers measured how sensitive, responsive, warm and stimulating caregivers were with children, and how many positive experiences they created in the group.

The finding underscores the need for basic standards of care for children, she said. Most of those standards today are set by states and vary widely in strictness, Vandell said.

"We have found very few poor and very few high-quality centers," she said. "But there is definite room for improvement. The quality of care should be better across the board."

Regardless of the science or the politics, child care becomes a bigger issue each year in America. In 1947, only 12 percent of mothers with children under age six were in the work force; by 1997, the figure was 64 percent. Also in 1997, 56 percent of moms with babies less than 1 year old were in the work force.

A second phase of the NICHD study -- with a second set of questions -- will follow these same children through the first grade, Vandell said.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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