A much-anticipated report from the largest and longest-running study of American child care has found that keeping a preschooler in a day care center for a year or more increased the likelihood that the child would become disruptive in class—and that the effect persisted through the sixth grade.
The effect was slight, and well within the normal range for healthy children, the researchers found. And as expected, parents’ guidance and their genes had by far the strongest influence on how children behaved.
But the finding held up regardless of the child’s sex or family income, and regardless of the quality of the day care center. With more than 2 million American preschoolers attending day care, the increased disruptiveness very likely contributes to the load on teachers who must manage large classrooms, the authors argue.
The research, being reported today as part of the federally financed Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, tracked more than 1,300 children in various arrangements, including staying home with a parent, being cared for by a nanny or a relative or attending a large day care center. Once the subjects reached school, the study used teacher ratings of each child to assess behaviors like interrupting class, teasing and bullying.
“This study makes it clear that it is not just quality that matters,” said Jay Belsky, one of the study’s principal authors, who helped set off the debate in 1986 with a paper suggesting that non-parental child care could cause developmental problems.
Other experts said the researchers could not randomly assign children to one kind of care or another; parents chose the kind of care that suited them. That meant there was no control group, so determining cause and effect was not possible.
The research began in 1991 and has financing to follow the children into high school.
[Editors Note: The Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, along with various supplemental materials, can be accessed here.]