March 27, 2007

Early Child Care Linked to Increases in Vocabulary, Some Problem Behaviors in Fifth and Sixth Grades

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- Children who received higher quality child care before entering kindergarten had better vocabulary scores in the fifth grade than did children who received lower quality care, according to a recent analysis of a long-term National Institutes of Health-funded study.

The study authors also report that the more time children spent in center-based care before kindergarten, the more likely their sixth-grade teachers were to report such problem behaviors as "gets in many fights," "disobedient at school," and "argues a lot."

However, the researchers cautioned that the increase in vocabulary and problem behaviors was small, and that parenting quality was a much more important predictor of child development than was type, quantity or quality of child care.

The study appears in the March/April issue of Child Development.

The collaborative study was led by the NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. RTI International served as the data acquisition and analysis center.

The 1,364 children in the analysis have been tracked since birth as part of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, the largest, longest running and most comprehensive study of child care in the United States. Families were recruited through hospital visits to mothers shortly after the birth of a child in 1991 in 10 U.S. locations.

During the study, researchers measured the quality, quantity and type of child care the children received from birth until they were 54 months old. Child care was defined as care by anyone other than the child's mother that was regularly scheduled for at least 10 hours per week. This included care by fathers, grandparents and other relatives.

The researchers then evaluated the children's academic achievement and cognitive functioning from kindergarten through fifth grade and social development through sixth grade. Other factors, such as parenting quality and the quality of classroom instruction, were also measured.

An evaluation of the children in fifth grade showed that the children who had higher quality child care continued to show better vocabulary scores, a correlation that was seen previously from kindergarten to third grade.

The researchers found that the correlation between high-quality care and better vocabulary scores continued regardless of the amount of time the child had spent in child care or the type of care.

The researchers reported that this finding is consistent with other evidence indicating that children with greater early exposure to adult language were themselves more likely to score higher on measures of language development. However, child care quality was not associated with improved reading skills after 54 months of age.

The study also found that, as in the earlier grades, children with more experience in child care centers continued to show, through sixth grade, a greater frequency of what the researchers termed teacher-reported externalizing problem behavior.

Children who had been in center care in early childhood were more likely to score higher on teacher reports of aggression and disobedience. This was true regardless of the quality of the center-based care they received. The researchers emphasized that the children's behavior was within the normal range and were not considered clinically disordered.