March 27, 2007 -- Kids who spend time in child care outside the home before kindergarten have better vocabulary but may also be at risk for more behavior problems later, according to a controversial study released Monday.
The study concludes that children in higher-quality child care score higher on vocabulary tests in fifth grade than children in lower-quality care. But it also suggests that children who spent more time in child care centers are more likely to exhibit problem behaviors through sixth grade.
Researchers say cause of the apparent behavioral effect of child care “remains somewhat a mystery.”
Children’s behavior was not considered extreme or excessive, researchers wrote in the report, published in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development. Still, they called the apparent link between child care and behavior problems “[a] unique and enduring impact of a seemingly adverse kind.”
Jay Belsky, PhD, the study’s author, says the study showed “a limited number” of measurable effects on children and that those effects were “modest in strength.” But the study raises concerns given the millions of U.S. children who get care outside the home at a young age.
“There may, therefore, be collective consequences of small enduring effects of child care across classrooms, schools, communities, and society at large,” says Belsky, director of the Institute for the Study of Children at Birkbeck University of London.
The government-funded study looked at 1,364 children tracked by researchers since birth. Researchers studied 10 U.S. locations and warned that they are not a scientifically representative sample of children nationwide.
Reports of problem behavior were provided by teachers. They included reported behaviors of arguing often, hitting others, and being disobedient.
The research is controversial among psychologists because of concerns that it can be used to bolster arguments that working mothers should remain in the home instead of placing their children in care.
Kirby Deater-Deckard, PhD, a child development researcher at Virginia Tech, agrees that the issue is politicized in scientific circles. He tells WebMD the issue of the quality of child care should not automatically be mixed with the debate over parental vs. out-of-home child care.
“That is a separate question, and reasonable minds disagree on how important one is vs. how important the other is,” he says.