A study published in 2014 used a nationally representative sample of over 10,000 children to learn more about the types, quantity, and quality of child care toddlers in the US experience. The researchers found that quality, but not quantity, of child care received between 12 and 24 months predicted higher cognitive performance at 2 years of age. Further, the study found that
- children in high-quality centers had the highest cognitive scores
- children in low-quality centers had the lowest cognitive scores
- children in parental care or home-based child care scored similarly to the children in medium-quality centers.
Quality was assessed by raters who judged whether children received frequent stimulating and sensitive interactions, had opportunities to interact with a variety of age-appropriate objects and activities, and whether health and safety of the children was maintained within that environment.
This research joins other studies that link childcare quality to better early cognitive development, preschool language, academic, and social development.
I reached out to one of the authors of the paper, George Farkas, who is a professor at University of California, Irvine, and asked him a couple of questions about the effects of high quality childcare on young children.
What structural aspects of child care quality matter more (size, teacher training, etc.)?
Our available instruments are not terribly good at measuring child care quality and showing that it has large effects on child outcomes. However, we are sure that the two dimensions: emotional warmth and cognitive instruction are both important aspects of quality, and both increase child outcomes.
The decision to send children to organized childcare vs. stay at home is a very hard one for parents. Is there anything you could offer to parents to help them make more informed decisions?
This is a tough one. If the mother is well educated (at least some college) she may provide a better environment for the child than a middle to lower quality child care center. In this case it might be best to either put the child in a very high quality center or to take care of the child at home. In such a case, the child should experience some out-of-home care to get used to interacting with other children and teachers, but not necessarily a great deal of such care. There is also a well confirmed finding that too long a period of participation in outside child care can lead to behavior problems later.
A note about family day care homes. Research indicates that care provided there tends to be more disorganized and involves less actual learning.
What is one finding that surprised you the most in your research?
That all minority-group children are under-, not over-represented in special education. Apparently the many calls of racism have discouraged districts and parents from placing minority children in special education. We have replicated this in multiple articles and data sets but many (including the Office of Special Education Programs) still oppose the finding. It is also consistent with the common finding by public health researchers that minorities are under-diagnosed for all disabilities.