May 14, 2010 -- The effects of early child care may be more long-lasting than commonly believed, according to a new study.
At age 15, teens who had high-quality child care in their early years performed better on academic and cognitive tests than did other teens, and they had fewer adolescent behavior problems, says study leader Deborah Lowe Vandell, PhD, professor and chair of education at the University of California, Irvine.
''We think a lot of people expect the effects of early child care would fade away by age 15," Vandell tells WebMD. "We found they didn't. Children who were in early high-quality child care did better academically and cognitively at age 15, compared to other children in the study."
Teens with a quality child care background also had fewer problem behaviors, such as breaking rules, hanging out with kids who get into trouble, and arguing, the researchers found.
The study is published in the journal Child Development.
Effects of Child Care: Study Details
The new findings add to previous research on the same group of about 1,300 children, born in 10 cities across the U.S. in 1991 and followed up over the years. The study is the National Institute of Child Health and Development’s Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.
In previous reports, Vandell and her colleagues found that children who had early, high-quality child care did better academically and cognitively at grade 5.
"What we also found in previous reports is that children who attended child care for more hours displayed more acting out in early childhood."
The researchers rated the quality of a child care program by observing, noting the caregivers' behavior with the children, and evaluating how sensitive and responsive they were to the child's needs, among other measures.
Vandell and her team then collected the results of standardized school tests measuring achievement and cognition and collected information from the teens, their families, and school personnel.
At the age 15 follow-up, results were obtained for 70% of the original participants.
The backgrounds of the children were diverse, including middle class and low income, two-parent families, and single-parent families.
In the study, Vandell says, "90% had some type of child care experience. It could be preschool, nursery school, child care in the home, home care by babysitters, or nannies. The hours varied, from seven to about 60 [weekly]."
Only 41% had child care classified as high or moderately high quality.
Early Child Care Study Results
How much better did the kids with high-quality child care do? On a test of academic and cognitive achievement, Vandell says, "the children who had high-quality child care scored 5.3 points higher, on average."
To put that in perspective, the average score, in general, on the test is 100. Her study participants, overall, scored 106 on average. The teens with high-quality child care scored 5.3 above that, she says.
Those who had high-quality child care tended to have fewer ''acting out'' problems as teens, they found.
The more hours the teens had spent in early child care during their first four and a half years, the more risk taking and impulsivity they reported as teens, the researchers found, but that was partly compensated for by the effects of quality care on fewer acting-out behaviors.
Although the effects were small, they're important, the researchers say, and they don't fade away over the years.
Effects of Early Child Care: Another View
The messages from the new study are clear, says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in Washington, D.C., who reviewed the findings for WebMD. "Quality matters, and the way this study measures quality is to look at the relationship between the child and the child care provider over time. Is it warm, is it caring?"
Even if a teen's child care program was not high quality, parents can compensate, she says. "It's never too late. Whatever positive [things] their child is interested in, they can build on and extend," she says. "Motivation begets motivation."
Likewise, if a child is too aggressive and in danger of behavioral problems, experts know a lot more now about how to help that child than they did at the study start in 1991, Galinsky says. One technique, for instance, is teaching a child ''perspective taking," where a child is taught to ''read'' another child's state of mind to guide his own behavior and avoid conflict, Galinsky says.
Finding High-Quality Child Care
How can parents decide if a child care setting is high quality?
Vandell suggests getting referrals to child care programs from friends, then selecting two or three programs that sound good.
''Talk to the people on the phone, and then go observe," she says. Stay for several hours or half a day if possible. Don’t focus only on the caregiver, she says. Instead, pick a child or two who matches your own in age, behavior, personality, and energy level, if possible. See how each child and the caregivers interact.
Check to see if your state has an evaluation program for guidance, Vandell says.
Pay attention to the environment when you observe, says Galinsky. ''If the kids all run over to you when you walk in," she says, "they're bored."
"If all the art work is the same, the teachers are entertaining the children," she says. If the children are encouraged to be creative in their artwork, it's a good sign, she says.