Over the past few decades, the usage of child care, including both family child care homes and child care centers, has increased in tandem with the rates of labor force participation for mothers of small children. Before starting school, a significant portion of young children now routinely attend daycare centers; the rates of care for preschool-aged children are greater than those for newborns and toddlers. According to recent estimates, about two-thirds of all American children aged three to five attend regular child care before starting kindergarten.1. Given these high rates of child care utilization, researchers studying the effects of these experiences on children’s cognitive and social development have included parents as well as professionals.
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Research on the impact of child care experiences on children’s development has gained traction since children’s outcomes are influenced by the various contexts they encounter, including both family and child care settings. Concerns over how the quality of such surroundings influences children’s development are raised by the fact that the average quality of child care in the US is reportedly lower than that of the standards advised by early childhood specialists. Numerous studies have looked at the impact that differences in the quality of preschool child care experiences have on children’s cognitive and social skills during the preschool years, during the transition to school, and into the elementary school years. This is in addition to the general interest in fostering children’s school readiness skills. Examining the quality of child care has involved weighing a number of factors, such as teacher qualifications (such as education and training levels), teacher-child relationships (such as sensitivity, warmth, and closeness of the relationship with the child), and classroom practices (such as materials, activities, and daily organization).
The problem of family selection criteria presents a challenge when analyzing the effects of child care quality. Families select the kind and caliber of child care they utilize, and families with varying traits may select alternative options. Specifically, research indicates that families with more financial resources typically select better child care.7–10 Consequently, it might not be able to fully distinguish between the impacts of family dynamics and the developmental consequences of high-quality child care. Even though these family selection characteristics have been statistically controlled for in more recent research, when the two are closely associated, the impacts of high-quality child care may be understated.
The requirement for longitudinal studies with representative samples of sufficient size and various levels of child care quality in order to investigate the longer-term impacts of child care quality on children’s development is a second challenge in this field of study. Although some studies (such as the Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centers Study and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care) do exist, the cost and complexity of conducting this kind of research restricts the amount of information that is available.
Context of Research
Two different types of study have produced evidence about the impact of preschool child care on children’s development: early intervention programs for children at risk and regular community child care. While a number of studies have looked at the long-term impacts of early intervention programs, not many have looked at how these programs affect kids who attend community child care services as they go from preschool to elementary school. Long-term positive effects on children’s cognitive development and academic achievement have been found in several studies of early intervention programs. These effects extend until the third or fourth grade, and even further into adolescence and adulthood for broader indicators of school success, such as retention in grade, placement in special education, total number of years of education, and intellectual functioning.9–15 While these studies clearly demonstrate the long-term benefits of offering such programs in the preschool years, they do not accurately reflect the experiences of the majority of children in child care. These early intervention programs were typically high quality, extremely intense, model demonstration programs.
A second field of study has looked at the outcomes of the standard community child care services that families use, which might differ greatly in the caliber of experiences they offer. More precisely, within the past 20 years, a sizable body of research has emerged that examines the impact of preschool child care quality on kids’ cognitive, social, and emotional development. Unlike the model demonstration programs included in the early intervention studies, research studies have included child care programs chosen from those that exist within the local areas examined. In order to account for variations in both the choice of child care and the results of the children, the most compelling evidence has come from studies that have looked at the effects of child care quality after adjusting for variations in child or family background characteristics, such as socioeconomic status, maternal education, family structure, gender, or ethnicity.