— Low-quality care in the first few years of life can have a small but long-lasting impact on a child's learning and behavior, according to new results from the largest, most authoritative assessment of child rearing in the United States.
The federally funded study, which has been tracking more than 1,300 children since 1991, found that obedience and academic problems among those who received low-quality care in their first 4 1/2 years of life persisted through their 15th birthdays, suggesting the potential for lifelong difficulties.
The differences between teens who received low- and high-quality care when they were very young were relatively small, and the endurance of these disparities startled researchers.
"The fact that you have this persistent association is pretty remarkable," said James A. Griffin of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is funding the research being reported Friday in the May-June issue of the journal Child Development.
Several experts praised the findings, saying they underscore the urgent need for local, state and federal governments, employers and others to improve access to high-quality child care.
"I think it is shocking that we don't have a much higher proportion of our children . . . in excellent, quality child care," said Sharon Landesman Ramey, director of the Georgetown University Center on Health and Education.
For the study, which began in 1991 amid growing concerns about the effects of parents' increasing reliance on outside child care, researchers in Arkansas, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin followed 1,364 infants of various ethnicities, races and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The researchers collected detailed information about the type and quality of care the children were receiving through age 4 1/2 , including whether their custodians were parents, other relatives, nannies, babysitters or day care centers in or outside a home, as well as the number of hours of which kind of care each child received. The subjects underwent tests assessing their academic and cognitive skills, and parents and teachers answered questionnaires about each child's behavior. The quality was assessed based on observations of a host of factors, including the caregivers' warmth, sensitivity, emotional support and how much cognitive stimulation they provided.
Influence of family more important
The researchers previously reported that toddlers who received higher-quality care had fewer behavior problems than those receiving lower-quality care. The type of care, whether it was inside or outside the home, did not seem to matter, although day-care centers appeared to be related to more acting out among first- and third-graders. Kids who received high-quality care scored better on tests measuring math, reading and other cognitive skills throughout elementary school.
Researchers had speculated that the negative effects of lower-quality care would disappear as the influence of other factors, such as peers, teachers and maturation, overcame the early childhood experience. But in the latest analysis of the data, they discovered that teenagers who had received higher-quality child care were less likely to report engaging in problem behaviors such as arguing, being mean to others and getting into fights. Those who spent more hours in child care of any kind were more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behaviors. And those who received moderately high- or high-quality care scored higher on tests gauging cognitive and academic achievement.
"What was the surprise for us was that the effects at age 15 were the same size as we had seen in elementary school and just prior to school entry," said Deborah Lowe Vandell of the University of California at Irvine, who led the analysis. The researchers stressed that the benefits of higher-quality care were modest — a difference of just a few points on standardized tests measuring reading, math, memory and other cognitive abilities, and self-reports of behavioral problems. Other factors, such as the influence of parents and family members, were clearly more important. However, the findings held true even after the researchers took those and other factors into account.
The researchers plan to continue following the children.
"The likelihood is these can affect children throughout their lives, and not just low-income children," said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research center.