• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 27th July, 2010

Non-relative values

The changing patterns of family life, and the growing use of daily child care other than by parents or other relatives, have provoked much debate over the past two decades. But what effects does the nature and quality of such child care produce in adolescence? To answer this question, several conditions have to be met. First, a robust longitudinal study is needed to provide the data, which raises problems of the nature of the sample, diminishing participation over time and the difficulties of comparing the results of measures used at different ages. Second, if correlations are found, how can we be sure that there is a causal link and how can chains of effects be proven? And, if the effects are found to decline with age, at what point should we conclude that there is nothing which is significant any longer?The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study of Early Child Care and Youth development (NICHD SECCYD) in the USA provides answers to some of these questions. Launched in the early 1990s, it sought to examine the significance of three aspects of this form of child care: its quality, quantity and type. At the start of the project, all mothers giving birth in 10 US locations (8,896 in total) were screened for participation. Of these, 3,143 were deemed unsuitable on the basis of certain criteria, such as age and not speaking English, and a further 1,353 declined the offer to participate. Out of the 4,491 remaining, 1,364 were randomly selected for study. They have been followed up on 13 occasions since the birth of their child, the last when the young people reached the age of 15 and were assessed for cognitive-academic achievement, risk-taking, impulsivity and externalising problems. The results of the study of the 15 year-olds have been analysed in the light of the earlier information on care by those other than relatives in the first four and a half years of their lives to see if any connections can be made. So, what did the researchers find?The most important result was that the different outcomes found at age 15 could be explained by the factors associated with early non-relative parenting indicating that the effects of the early upbringing had not diminished with age. For example, the quality of the early child care continues to predict cognitive-academic performance, the effect size being 0.9, the same as that measured at 4.5 years. The representative nature of the sample also suggests that this benefit applies across the board, to rich as well as poor, and that the better the quality of the early care, the more marked the benefits. Thus, it is clear that competencies developed at one stage are carried forward to later ones.With regard to behaviour problems, the results are more difficult to interpret. Comparisons are complicated by both the fact that different people make assessments as the youngster grows up and behaviours change with age. Nevertheless, there was a clear association between the number of child-care hours experienced earlier and risk-taking behaviour, impulsiveness and less externalising behaviour in adolescence. However, there was only a modest mediation effect for behaviour problems at 4.5 years because of the methodological complications described above.It remains to be determined whether these effects continue as the adolescents move to adulthood. Good cognitive-academic skills are certainly a foundation for later academic and occupational success but opportunities for risk taking and challenges to self-regulation also increase. So the preventive benefits time, whether for individuals or groups of young people. This is because some aspects of children’s lives might be affected more than others and the contrast between those adapting well and those facing difficulties might sharpen.Deborah Lowe Vandell, Margaret Burchinal, Nathan Vandergrift, Jay Belsky, Laurence Steinberg and the NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, Child Development, May/June 2010, 81.3, pp. 737-756

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