Childcare Dilemma: Are Children at Risk?

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010


On April 19, 2001, results of one of the largest childcare studies were released at the Society of Research and Child Development conference. Jay Belsky, Ph.D. was the principal researcher for the study that was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The information was communicated at the conference and has not yet appeared in a peer reviewed academic journal. The findings were announced to the public amidst headlines of concern and caution for parents and caregivers. A careful evaluation of the study and its results will provide the appropriate context in which to consider the findings.

What the study did

The researchers followed 1,300 children in 10 different cities in a variety of childcare situations ranging from organized free standing agencies to paid home care for multiple children. The children in the study came from families with varied socioeconomic levels and were evaluated on various measures of behavior and cognitive ability in kindergarten.

What the study found

The finding that is causing the most concern is that at age 4 ½ years of age and later, 17% of the children who spent at least 30 hours a week in non-parental care scored higher for specific behavioral problems such as "cruelty", "talking too much", and "demands a lot of attention". More time spent in day care was also associated with children being rated as more fearful, shy and sad, yet the difference between children with and without these symptoms did not exist by kindergarten. The benefits of childcare were also identified by the study. Higher quality childcare through age 4 ½ was associated with better cognitive skills and memory, and the particular types of caregiver-child interactions were associated with better language skills. Childcare for infants was not related to particular positive or negative results.

Characteristics of the childcare arrangement were linked to the positive findings. Children in care with better trained staff who were sensitive to children's needs and provided stimulation in a structured setting with a high adult-to-child ratio fared best.

Other issues to consider in understanding the results

Although 17% of the children exhibited behaviors of concern, such as being demanding, and aggressive, none were to a degree beyond the norm or worthy of referral for evaluation and intervention. In addition, these statistics mean that 83% of the children were doing well. Certainly we must consider what accounted for the difference, but extrapolating from research to policy is usually a premature and dangerous leap.

We must also look at the results in light of children's mental health issues. One-third to one-half of all referrals to mental health professionals are for aggressive behavior. In addition, we know that the incidence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is anywhere from 5-15%, conduct disorder is 3-10% and anxiety disorders is 5-20%. Therefore, statistically a certain percentage of children in kindergarten will have problems due to the genetic, biologic, and environmental nature of mental illnesses, not necessarily due to a previous childcare situation.

Family composition is an additional factor to be considered. Before reaching adulthood, 59% of all children will have lived in a single parent household at some time in their life and 2/3 of all families have two working parents. Thus, childcare is often a necessity, not a choice. These realities may make for additional family stress that is impacting on children rather than just inadequate childcare.

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