ERIC Identifier: ED447969
Publication Date: 2000-12-00
Author: Patten, Peggy - Ricks, Omar Benton
Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education Champaign IL.
Child Care Quality: An Overview for Parents. ERIC Digest.
The percentage of working mothers using center-based care for their
preschoolers grew from 13% to 29% from 1977 to 1994, according to the U.S.
Bureau of the Census (1998). Along with the increasing use of child care have
come questions about how children's development is affected by the quality of
child care services available to parents. Defining high-quality child care is
difficult; however, there is general agreement that the development of children
should be enhanced rather than put at risk by their out-of-home care
experiences. This Digest discusses child care research that addresses parents'
questions about quality.
HOW DO RESEARCHERS ASSESS THE QUALITY OF CHILD
Researchers generally examine a variety of child care characteristics,
such as structural and process features, and the relationship of these
characteristics to effects on children.
and process features.
Structural features include child-adult ratio, the qualifications of
caregivers, and wages paid to caregivers/teachers (Whitebook et al., 1989;
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 1998; Cryer,
1999, p. 41). Process features--practices that affect how children experience
child care--include the responsiveness of the caregiver, individualization of
care, and the use of language in the classroom (Love, 1997; Love et al., 1996;
Cryer, 1999; Helburn & Howes, 1996). The common element of these practices
and conditions is their ability to contribute to certain desirable outcomes in
children, including language acquisition and cognitive development,
self-control, sociability, creativity, the ability to engage in cooperative
play, and the ability to solve social conflicts (Love, 1997). Researchers
compare the effects, if any, that programs employing varying conditions and
practices have on the children attending them.
To what extent are good developmental outcomes the result of the child care
environment, and to what extent are they the product of other factors? To answer
these questions, researchers try to isolate specific conditions or practices
within a child care setting, and then confirm that those factors are actually
correlated with certain positive or negative effects. But a correlation only
shows that a change in one feature predicts a change; it does not show what has
caused that change. To show effects requires difficult and expensive controlled
experimental studies that raise many practical and ethical issues.
DOES RESEARCH SHOW THAT QUALITY HAS IMPORTANT
Evidence suggests some modest relationships between particular
practices and conditions and better outcomes for children (Frede, 1995; NICHD,
1998). Few studies can state unequivocally that high quality causes positive
effects. Generally, researchers suggest that other factors combine with child
care quality to produce long-term effects on children, and that some other
factors are stronger predictors of outcomes than is child care quality (NICHD,
For instance, findings in the NICHD study offered mixed support for the view
that high-quality child care predicts positive outcomes. On the one hand,
children attending child care centers that met American Public Health
Association/American Academy of Pediatrics (APHA/AAP) standards (which are more
stringent than accreditation standards) had greater school readiness, higher
language test scores, and fewer behavioral problems than their peers in other
centers. Child care quality also had a consistent positive correlation with
children's cognitive and language development. However, the correlation was
higher for a combination of family factors that included family income and
maternal vocabulary (used in studies as a substitute for maternal intelligence).
In fact, a combination of family factors was actually more closely correlated
with developmental outcomes like behavior, compliance, and self-control than was
child care quality (NICHD, 1998). This correlation suggests that families with
certain characteristics tend to choose high-quality care and that positive
outcomes may stem more from those characteristics than from high-quality care.
High quality is not the chief cause or predictor of positive outcomes, nor is
low quality the chief cause or predictor of negative outcomes. Nonetheless,
findings from the NICHD (1998) and the Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes in Child
Care Centers (1995) studies indicate that high-quality care may offset risk
factors for some negative outcomes. There is stronger evidence from longitudinal
experimental studies to suggest that high-quality preschool has substantial,
long- lasting, positive effects on the development of children from families
living in poverty (Burchinal, 1999). The Abecedarian Project followed a group of
104 infants from low-income families, half of whom received high-quality,
educational child care beginning in early infancy and half of whom did not.
Those who had received high-quality child care had higher reading, math, and
mental test scores from toddlerhood through age 21, and were more likely to be
in school at age 21, than those in the non-treated group (Carolina Abecedarian
Project, 1999, pp. 1-3). The High/Scope Perry Preschool study (Schweinhart et
al., 1993) also compared individuals who had been part of a high-quality
preschool in the 1960s with those who had not. Researchers documented a greater
likelihood of responsible behaviors--including fewer arrests--and higher IQs,
education levels, incomes, rates of home ownership, and rates of marriage among
participants as compared with non-participants, even after 27 years.
WHAT IS THE QUALITY OF CHILD CARE IN THE UNITED
High-quality child care is in short supply. Love et al.'s (1996)
review of the research on child care quality found that the quality of
experience in child care centers and in family child care homes in the United
States is generally mediocre. The following major studies seem to substantiate
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of
Early Child Care found that most child care centers did not meet APHA/AAP
standards (NICHD, 1998).
The Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centers (CQO) study, a study
of center-based care in four states, found that 86% provided mediocre or poor-
quality care. Infant and toddler care was particularly poor with fully 40% rated
as low quality (Helburn & Howes, 1996, pp. 66-68).
Only 9% of family child care homes in three states in the Study of Children in
Family Child Care and Relative Care (Galinsky et al., 1994) were rated "good"
quality, 56% of the homes were "adequate/custodial," and 35% of the homes in the
study were rated "inadequate."
WHAT SHOULD PARENTS CONSIDER IN CHOOSING CHILD
Research has shown that as many as 65% of parents believe they have
little choice among child care options (Galinsky et al., 1994). How can parents
make the best choices among the available options? Firsthand observation is a
good start, and child care resource and referral agencies (CCR&Rs) can
assist parents in knowing what to look for in care arrangements, including:
Process features: how staff respond to children, the way teachers talk with
children, how staff approach discipline, and appropriateness of learning
Structural features: group size, child-adult ratio, level of staff
education/training, staff turnover rate, quality/quantity of space, and
quality/quantity of materials
Since available evidence seems to suggest that family factors are at least as
important as child care quality factors in how children develop, it is also
important to consider other questions, such as:
How do family members feel about using child care?
How well do potential child care providers communicate with parents?
How do parents' job conditions affect their use or choice of child care?
CCR&Rs often have resources on ways to maintain good relationships with
child care programs and on how to talk to employers about implementing
family-supportive benefits. Child Care Aware can help parents locate their local
CCR&R agency (Web: http://childcareaware.net/; telephone: 1-800-424-2246).
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Burchinal, M. R. (1999). Child care
experiences and developmental outcomes. In Suzanne W. Helburn (Ed.), The silent
crisis in U.S. child care [Special issue]. ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF
POLITICAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCE, 563, 73-97.
Carolina Abecedarian Project. (1999). EARLY LEARNING, LATER SUCCESS: THE
ABECEDARIAN STUDY. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY [Online]. Available:
Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study Team (CQO). (1995). COST, QUALITY AND
CHILD OUTCOMES IN CHILD CARE CENTERS PUBLIC REPORT. Denver: Economics
Department, University of Colorado-Denver. ED 386 297.
Cryer, D. (1999). Defining and assessing early childhood program quality. In
Suzanne Helburn (Ed.), The silent crisis in U.S. child care [Special issue].
ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF POLITICAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCE, 563, 39-55.
Frede, E. (1995). The role of program quality in producing early childhood
program benefits. FUTURE OF CHILDREN, 5(3), 115-132. EJ 523 966.
Galinsky, E., Howes, C., Kontos, S., & Shinn, M. B. (1994). The study of
children in family child care and relative care-- Key findings and policy
recommendations. YOUNG CHILDREN, 50(1), 58-61. EJ 493 657.
Helburn, S. W., & Howes, C. (1996). Child care cost and quality. FUTURE
OF CHILDREN, 6(2), 62-82. EJ 537 047.
Love, J. M. (1997). Quality in child care centers. EARLY CHILDHOOD RESEARCH
AND POLICY BRIEFS, 1(1). ED 417 827.
Love, J. M., Schochet, P. Z., & Meckstroth, A. L. (1996). ARE THEY IN ANY
REAL DANGER? WHAT RESEARCH DOES--AND DOESN'T--TELL US ABOUT CHILD CARE QUALITY
AND CHILDREN'S WELL-BEING. Plainsboro, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research. ED 415
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care
Research Network (NICHD). (1998). THE NICHD STUDY OF EARLY CHILD CARE [Online].
Available: http: //www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/early_child_care.htm
Schweinhart, L. J., Barnes, H. V., & Weikart, D. P. (1993). SIGNIFICANT
BENEFITS: THE HIGH/SCOPE PERRY PRESCHOOL STUDY THROUGH AGE 27. (Monographs of
the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, 10). Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope
Press. ED 366 433.
Stifter, C. A., Coulehan, C. M., & Fish, M. (1993). Linking employment to
attachment: The mediating effects of maternal separation anxiety and interactive
behavior. CHILD DEVELOPMENT, 64(5), 1451-1460. EJ 471 361.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1998). Historical time-series tables. Primary
child care arrangements used for preschoolers by families with employed mothers:
Selected years, 1977 to 1994 [Online]. Available:
Whitebook, M., Howes, C., & Phillips, D. (1989). WHO CARES? CHILD CARE
TEACHERS AND THE QUALITY OF CARE IN AMERICA: FINAL REPORT. NATIONAL CHILD CARE
STAFFING STUDY. Berkeley, CA: Child Care Employee Project. ED 323 031.