Child-Care Quality Matters

Child care is a fact of life in America today. More than
two-thirds of all children under the age of five are cared for on a regular basis
by someone other than a parent. These children may attend day-care centers or
nursery schools, go to the home of a provider who tends to a number of children,
or be cared for by a relative, neighbor, baby-sitter, or nanny.

Since welfare reform in 1996, more mothers have had to find child care as
they begin to enter the workforce and meet the new work requirements and time
limits. From 1997 to 1999, for example, the share of current welfare recipients
working for pay rose from 22 percent to 32 percent.

Expanded child-care needs in the wake of welfare reform have also led to a
large increase in the day-care money available to states. In fiscal year 1997,
$4.2 billion in state and federal funds went toward this purpose, a 35 percent
rise from the previous fiscal year.

Both of these factors -- more mothers needing child care and more funds in
public coffers to pay for it -- have brought renewed attention to the issue of
child-care quality, especially for low-income children or those in current or
former welfare-dependent households. This attention reflects, in part, a growing
recognition that child-care quality is important both to mothers' employment
and children's development.

Fortunately, research is providing valuable insights into the link between
child care and child outcomes. In the last several years, three major reviews of
the research literature by distinguished bodies of scholars have addressed this
topic. A good example is From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of
Early Childhood Development,
released by the National Research Council and
the Institute of Medicine in 2000. In the words of the report: "Higher quality
care is associated with outcomes that all parents want to see in their children,
ranging from cooperation with adults to the ability to initiate and sustain
positive exchanges with peers, to early competence in reading and math."

What are the ingredients of high-quality child care? Safe, clean surroundings
and appropriate space and equipment are certainly important, but they aren't
enough. At the heart of high-quality child care is the nature of interactions
between children and caregivers. Research shows that children develop best if
relationships with their caregivers are warm, supportive, responsive, and
cognitively stimulating. Stability of care is also important, as it is hard to
form sustained relationships if caregivers come and go.

How does child care today measure up? While there are no nationally
representative studies of child-care quality, generalizations can be made based
on multistate research projects that looked at the quality of care. For example,
results from a 2000 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development's Early Child Care Research Network suggest that the quality of 61
percent of settings for young children would be rated as either poor (8 percent)
or fair (53 percent), with care for infants and toddlers getting the lowest
ratings. Such findings provide sufficient cause for concern about the level of
care available in the United States, especially for infants and toddlers.

The situation at the other end of the childhood age span -- teens -- is
another cause for concern. Recent experimental studies of welfare-to-work
programs have found evidence that teens whose mothers participated in these
programs were more likely to have behavioral and school problems than children
of welfare mothers not enrolled. Such findings suggest that care and supervision
are issues for children of all ages.

Overall, the research linking child care and child outcomes bears some
caveats. We don't know at this point if the children who do better in
high-quality settings are doing so solely because of their child-care experiences
or because of a mix of reasons. When mothers go to work, they bring income into
their households, they may experience a boost in self-esteem, and they may learn
valuable skills that they transfer to their parenting and household management.
Such factors may benefit children even if they are in child-care arrangements
that are merely adequate. In addition, parents who are more economically
advantaged, more educated, and under less stress are more likely to have the
resources and energy to search for better-quality care.

The federal government is funding a new wave of experimental studies to sort
out how child care affects children's outcomes. Meanwhile, the existing research
clearly suggests that child-care quality matters -- and that making
high-quality child care available, accessible, and affordable is a worthy public
investment.


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