Invited Address: The Findings on Child Care

Statistical Effects Are Clear but Their Policy Implications Are Open for Debate

Is Child Care a Threat to the Cognitive and Social Development of Children?
Results From the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development


Sarah Friedman

National Institute of Child Health and
Human Development

Day care can cool a child’s affection” ( The Daily Telegraph , 4/1997); “Day care can distance mother and child” ( USA Today , 11/1999); “Day care linked to child aggression.” ( The New York Times , 4/2001). These alarming headlines are just few of the examples Sarah Friedman, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, used to illustrate a great importance of empirically addressing the public’s continued concern: Is child care a threat to healthy development? “This seemingly simple question is not simple at all, and the answer to the question is not simple either,” Friedman said.

At the APS Annual Convention in Chicago , Friedman presented her interpretations of the findings from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a study conducted by about thirty investigators affiliated with ten data collection sites across the nation, with a data center, and with NICHD. “Based on the evidence, I am not in a position to tell you that child care is a threat.” In fact, it appears that child care might be “a smaller threat to children’s developmental outcomes than family,” Friedman reported.

Friedman began her talk by carefully outlining the “ways the child care could be construed as a threat.” Aside from possible direct threats on children’s cognitive and social development, Friedman discussed indirect threats, such as potential negative effects on family relations in general. ”Spending time in child care equals spending less time with family,” Friedman noted. If family relations are compromised, “children might do less well in terms of their social and cognitive outcomes,” she explained. It is also possible that day care poses the greatest threat to only very young children, or infants in a “sensitive period for the formation of the attachment relation,” Friedman said.

Particular type or quality of day care might also determine its effect on child development. First, child care may be highly structured (school-like) at the cost of providing less emotional support, or less formal (home-like) at the cost of providing less cognitively enriching experiences. Second, it might be of generally high or generally low quality in terms of reduced emotional support, language and cognitive stimulation and increased disorganization and stress. Third, the environment might be relatively stable, or the staff might change frequently thereby increasing stress and reducing children’s attachment to their care providers.

Friedman listed socio-emotional, cognitive, and achievement outcomes as measures used in the study to assess the association between child care and child’s development when the children were two, three, and four and a half years of age. The analyses of the data took into consideration the child’s age of entry, as well as the hours, type, quality, and stability of care. Friedman also mentioned demographics, quality of home experience, parent characteristics, and parent-child behavior as factors controlled for in the study’s analyses. “ Criteria for determining whether child care is a threat were: statistical significance, effect size, consistency of findings across time and place as well as the establishment of causality based on several predetermined criteria” Friedman specified. “One thousand three hundred sixty-four families and their children enrolled in the longitudinal study at one month of age. One thousand one hundred and three families and children remained involved in the study when the children were 7.”

Based on statistical significance criterion and on the similarity of findings across age, “low quality of day care is a threat to children’s cognitive, achievement and language outcomes,” Friedman said. However, “the effect size is low to modest,” and evidence of “clinically worrisome cognitive outcomes was not established.” When effects of child care on cognitive and achievement outcomes were compared with family effects, results suggested that “unfavorable family environment presents a greater threat to children’s cognitive skill, language performance and achievement across ages,” Friedman stated.

Friedman reported that similar results were obtained on the measures of social development. “It appears that more hours in child care are linked to more provider-reported problem behaviors.” Yet, even though the “findings were statistically significant and consistent … their magnitude was small to moderate,” Friedman said. Again, it seems that “ low family income and low maternal sensitivity together present a greater threats to children’s problem behaviors than child care hours .”

Consensus Is Needed

So can we conclude that child care is a threat? Friedman suggested that the answer to this overarching question could be answered satisfactory only after scientists come to a consensus regarding several other questions. According to Friedman, “scientists need to determine if the public should be worried about the effects of low quality of care if a one standard deviation change in quality is associated with a difference between half a point and one and a half points on cognitive outcomes.” Likewise, “scientists should come to a consensus as to whether or not the public should be worried about a statistically significant link between hours in care and scores on a behavior problem scale when most of the scores are at levels expected for children that age.” Friedman wondered if the current findings are sufficient to convince parents and policy makers that child care poses a threat to psychological development of children.

Friedman called for a research agenda that would allow psychologists to determine the circumstances under which child care would compromise the development of young children. “Until we determine what are the worrisome ranges of psychological outcomes and what are the unsafe ranges of child care experience, the data do not allow me to talk with certainty about child care as a threat for children’s developmental outcomes,” Friedman concluded.

Observer Vol.17, No.8 August, 2004

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