Findings from a study funded by the National Institutes of Health and released to the public on October 3rd reveal that a child’s family life has more influence on a child’s development through age 4½ than a child’s experience in child care.
Since many families rely on child care, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) began collecting data in 1991 to understand how, or if, differences in child care experiences might impact a child’s development. The data collection was maintained until January of this year and consisted of data from more than 1,000 healthy infants that were enrolled in the study at birth and were subsequently followed at 1 of 10 sites around the country. According to an accompanying NIH press release, the study included children from “ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged households” with 80% coming from “two-parent families.”
The children spent an average of 27 hours per week from birth through age 4½, the “cut off” age of the first data analysis. Among the findings in today’s online publication of The NICHD Study of Early Childcare and Youth Development include:
Those receiving “higher quality” child care were better able to think, respond, and interact with the world around them-and had somewhat better reading and math skills-than those receiving “lower quality” child care.
Children spending 30 or more hours in child care each week demonstrated more problem behavior in child care and in kindergarten (but not at home)
Children who attended child care centers had somewhat better language and social skills and better pre-academic skills involving letters and numbers, but showed somewhat more problem behavior when they first entered school.
That parent and family features were 2 to 3 times more strongly linked to child development than was child care during the preschool years.
This study tracked children’s experience in child care only. It was not designed to determine cause and effect and so could not demonstrate conclusively whether or not a particular aspect of child care experience had a particular effect later on.
In conclusion, the children in this study did better when parents were more educated, when families’ incomes were higher, when mothers had fewer or no symptoms of depression, and certainly when families had well organized routines, books, and play materials, and took part in learning activities.
The study report is available online at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/upload/seccyd_051206.pdf
If one were to read the summary of the report’s findings, as I reported them in the above paragraphs, I would certainly understand how many readers might be tempted to think that this article was nothing more than some thinly-veiled neo-conservative’s attack on what everyone “knows to be the real truth.” If this might describe your initial response, take heart that I also didn’t believe what I was reading. I had to reread the conclusions of this report 2 additional times before my reaction changed to an “uncaring” and “insensitive” somebody’s head is going to roll for this! Allow me to explain this sentiment.
The “official” doctrine of the past 30 years has been that if we would only “increase funding” (a euphemism for “throw some more of the taxpayer’s money at”) for “ethnically and gender appropriate pre-school and after-school activities.” If you doubt this to be true, you have not yet had the pleasure of being bombarded with the “official” position of the National Education Association on the subject. Since the conclusions of this study seem to contradict the current “conventional wisdom,” I am willing to wager a 6-pack of Coors Lite (or a suitable replacement) that there will soon be studies popping up all over the professional literature refuting the conclusions reported today.