Early Child Care and Youth Development

Have you ever attended a high school graduation ceremony and watched students receive their diplomas? If so, did you observe the honor students, the valedictorian or salutatorian and wonder about their story? Were they simply gifted students or did their upbringing have anything to do with their academic success? What about their early child care?

Early non-maternal child care has become a reality, if not a necessity, in our modern culture. A family structure with two working parents is now the norm; not the exception. Since most parents want optimum development for their child, an important question is, does early child care actually affect youth development?

The short answer is yes. A study by the NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Development) followed over 1000 children and their families from birth to first grade. The focus of the study was the relationship between early child care and development. To demonstrate representative results, the study was performed in ten different locations across the U.S. and included a mixture of socioeconomic backgrounds and race. The age at which children were put into care, how many hours they spent in care and the quality of the care were considered in the study. Another aspect of the study was diminishment of family influence on the children in extensive child care as compared to those children receiving exclusive care from mothers.

The children in the study spent on average 27 hours per week in non-maternal care for the first 4 ½ years of their life. Family homes and relatives represented the child care environment for the first two years of life. As the children grew older they moved on to more traditional care centers. It should be noted here that the study concluded that children that were exclusively cared for by their mothers developed about the same as children cared for by others.

The study concluded that a higher quality of care modestly provided higher cognitive performance, better language comprehension, a higher level of cooperativeness, and a higher level of school readiness. Lower quality care indicated more problematic behavior, poorer cognition, poorer language skills and a lower level of school readiness. Further, children with higher total hours in non-maternal care demonstrated behavioral issues compared to children with lower total hours of non-maternal care.

The operative question at this point is what constitutes “higher quality of care” and how many hours of non-maternal care are recommended before youth development is adversely affected. NICHD measured quality care in three areas: 1) adult to child ratios 2) group size and 3) staff training and education.

• Adult to Child Ratios: Children 6 months to 1 ½ years require one staff person to three children, children 1 ½ years to 2 years require one staff person to four children and children 2 years to 3 years require one staff person to seven children.
• Group Size: Children 6 months to 1 ½ years should engage in a group size of no more than six, eight children maximum for those 1 ½ years to 2 years, and fourteen maximum for those 2 years to 3 years.
• Education and Training: Staff should have formal post-high school training including certification or college degree in child development or a related field.

Lastly, it was concluded that children who spent on average thirty hours or more weekly in non-maternal child care were “somewhat” likely to demonstrate problematic behavior by age 4. However the quantity of time in child care did not affect cognitive development.

If you are about to become a parent or are already a parent facing the issue of non-maternal care, and if you want to better understand the pros, cons and potential effects of non-maternal child care, a professional licensed counselor trained in child development will be able to effectively help you develop a thoughtful plan to accommodate your child and your family needs.

Colin B. Denney, Ph.D., is the Director of the Pacific Psychology Services Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, he is a Child Psychologist Honolulu.