Studies shed light on child care options

Centers shown to be safer than homes


For most working parents, no other issue is so fraught with worry as the choice of child care. In a field long marred by overheated headlines and complicated political overtones, three studies offer some solid information on the pros and cons of different arrangements.

Two bolster research that found that long hours in group child care are linked to better reading and math skills but worse social skills and more behavioral problems. The third suggests that children in child care centers are safer than those who receive care in private homes, whether in a neighbor's home or by a nanny in the child's home.

Four years ago, the nation's most ambitious and longest-running child care study generated a firestorm with its findings that 4 1/2 -year-olds who had spent more than 30 hours a week in child care were more demanding, more aggressive and more noncompliant than others, regardless of the type or quality of care, the family's socioeconomic status or the sensitivity of the mother's parenting.

Now a report from that research - the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Study of Early Child Care - has tracked the same children through early elementary school and found that by third grade, those who had spent long hours in child care continued to score higher in math and reading skills and that their higher likelihood of aggressive behavior had dissipated.

But it also found that they still had poorer work habits and social skills.

Researchers cautioned that the findings should not be a cause of alarm because the effects of child care were found to be small.

"It isn't that these kids are more likely to have clinical levels of behavior problems," said Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a professor of child development at Columbia University. "You're getting a slight uptick, but it's still in the normal range."

Generally, the effects of child care were much smaller than the effects of good or bad parenting.

"Virtually across the board, the effects of parenting are greater than the effects of child care, so some people might say we don't need to worry about the small effects of child care," said Cathryn Booth-LaForce of the University of Washington, a researcher on the study.

"But child care affects so many children that for society at large, even small effects are important," Booth-LaForce added. "We have to consider whether we're creating a generation of children who have slightly less self-control, slightly more behavior problems, and whether teachers will have to spend a little more time on classroom management and a little less on instruction."

A separate study, being released today and based on a nationally representative sample of more than 14,000 kindergartners, found that while center-based day care programs modestly benefited middle-class children in early language and mathematics learning, youngsters from poor families experienced double those gains.

"Compared to many homes, preschool centers are richer settings in terms of enriched language, reading and math," said Bruce Fuller, a co-author of this report, The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children's Development Nationwide: How Much Is Too Much?

The report, by sociologists at Stanford and the University of California, found that learning skills in pre-reading and math were strongest when children entered a center-based program from age 2 to 3.

But it also found that on average, the earlier a child enters center-based care, the slower the pace of social development. The greatest effect was among high-income children. Youngsters who were from families with income of at least $66,000 and who spent more than 30 hours a week in center-based care had the weakest social skills - including diminished levels of cooperation, sharing and motivated engagement in classroom tasks, along with greater aggression - compared with similar children who remained at home with a parent.

Another study, being published today in The American Sociological Review, is apparently the first broad research into safety in child care. It found that the rate of death among children receiving care in private homes was 16 times as great as that of children in child care centers.

"Fatalities are the tip of the iceberg, and they're fortunately very rare, but they do reveal something about what goes on in centers," said Julia Wrigley, a sociologist and acting associate provost at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who wrote the report with Joanna Dreby. "No one kind of child care is clearly and definitely better for all children, but in terms of safety there are advantages in centers."

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