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Environmental Risk Factors (page 4)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Child Care

Children don’t choose to attend child care; they have to go. For many hours a week, they have very little control over their own lives. Their individual needs often take a backseat to the needs of the group and the teachers (children may nap so that teachers can have a lunch break, for example). Children who are inflexible or easily frustrated and children who are very active or very timid find this extremely hard, and it’s harder when they spend the entire day there. Challenging behavior is their way of letting us know what they feel.

Research has shown that stimulating and emotionally supportive care is associated with positive developmental outcomes for children. But a longitudinal study of about 1,000 children by the Early Child Care Research Network of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (2003) has found a link between the number of hours that 4 1/2-year-olds and kindergarteners spend in child care and their social competence and problem behavior. As the children’s time in child care increased, so did their problem behavior and aggression. The study takes into account the quality of care, along with the child’s gender and temperament; the mother’s education and sensitivity; and the family’s income and ethnicity.

These results are disturbing, and it’s tempting to discount them. After all, the overwhelming majority of children did not score in the at-risk range; and other studies have shown that quality of care does make a difference in children’s problem behavior, particularly in children from low-income families (Love et al., 2003). But it’s important to take this research seriously. It is a rigorous study, the largest of its kind ever conducted, and the researchers are respected experts. Because it seems to show that time spent in child care affects problem behavior even when quality is high, it suggests that trained, qualified, and experienced teachers working in high-quality centers don’t necessarily have the skills that are required to work effectively with children with challenging behavior.

A nationwide study of state-funded prekindergarten programs seems to confirm this view. Yale University researcher Walter S. Gilliam (2005) found that programs were expelling preschoolers “due to behavior concerns” at more than three times the rate that schools were ousting children in kindergarten through grade 12. Boys were thrown out more than four times as often as girls, and African American preschoolers were about twice as likely to be expelled as European American and Latino children. But, Gilliam discovered, the more access teachers had to the help of a mental health professional, the less likely they were to eject a child; and he recommended that they receive enhanced support and better training in addressing problem behavior.

Understanding risk

This article presents a long list of risk factors, and after reading it you might feel that it’s a miracle if any child manages to emerge from early childhood without challenging behavior. But remember that these risks have a cumulative effect. Each one you can counteract or help a child to avoid will make a substantial difference in her ability to cope. The simple fact that you understand more about who she is should increase your empathy and enhance the quality of your relationship—and the strength of your influence.

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