A complex picture of benefits and risks for young children in child care is emerging from a large and long-running national study. Researchers conducting the study for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development announced in mid-April that children who spend more than thirty hours a week in child care as toddlers are somewhat more likely to be aggressive, disobedient and defiant in kindergarten than children who spend less than ten hours a week in care.
The study also found that children in high-quality day care centers score higher on cognitive tests of math and language skills than children cared for at home or in low-quality centers.
In New York City, child care and its impact on children are major concerns. Roughly 470,000 city children of pre-school age have mothers who work full time, according to Child Care, Inc., a New York City non-profit agency. Under new rules instituted in the wake of welfare reform, New York parents are required to participate in job-related activities when babies reach twelve weeks of age. There are 124,000 children under the age of six who are in welfare families with mothers required to work.
"Seventeen percent of children have behavior problems in the range of what we would consider the risk range," said Dr. Sarah Friedman, coordinator the study for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a federal agency. The problems include fighting, cruelty, throwing tantrums. Other children, she said, showed elevated scores for milder aggressive behaviors that fall within the normal range of child behavior such as booing, talking too much, arguing. Dr. Friedman said the quality of care did not seem to be a significant factor.
The federal researchers have been following 1,300 children since birth and periodically have provided updates on the children's intellectual, emotional and social development. The children received care in a variety of settings, including home-based care and formal day care centers. The latest findings come from an analysis of tests and observations conducted when the children were four-and-a-half and five years old.
The newest findings stand in contrast to earlier reports from the long-range study. Two years ago the researchers reported that, at 36 months, the children in high-quality center-based care showed better mathematical reasoning and language skills than children in other types of care, and no detectable behavioral problems. Then, as now, in terms of language and math development, the children in high-quality care were indistinguishable from children cared for exclusively by their mothers.
"Sometimes things appear later," explained Dr. Friedman. "It is not unusual, in times of transition, such as the start of kindergarten, for weaknesses to become more apparent. One of the research questions is whether the results will increase, stay the same, or decrease" as the children progress through school, she added.
As news of the findings reached New York, child care experts began to express doubts about the study, pointing out that the research has been presented without having been published and that the data and methodology are not available for review.
"We really have to see the study in its entirety to evaluate how robust the findings are," said Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York "They say that children who are in care for a full week are rated as being more aggressive, but we do not know yet what the definitions of aggressive behavior are or how the ratings have been done."
Nayowith said the study was unlikely to influence New York City policy makers because many families in New York need child care for survival. "There is no question that a work-first economy like we have in New York City, where even single mothers of very young children have to work, is predicated on child care. So what are the researchers saying? That parents should stay home? That does not seem very helpful. What I would really be curious about is what kind of services were offered to these kids."
Nationally, parents express considerable ambivalence about using child care. A recent survey indicates that while parents overwhelmingly believe young children are better off at home with a parent, working parents report satisfaction with their own child care arrangements.
Sarah Friedman, the lead investigator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, warned that policy makers and parents should not look for simple solutions.
"This is all very complex," she said. "Just cutting the number of hours in care is too simple a recommendation because working less means less income and if you look at the data, the more income families have the better the outcome for children. Having said that, I am not belittling the results we have. They need to make us think."
Peggy J. Farber is freelance journalist specializing in children's issues. Her reporting on conditions of NYC children has appeared in City Limits Magazine as well as on National Public Radio.