Child Care Quality: Does It Matter and Does It Need to be Improved? (Full Report). Concurrent Associations between Structural and Caregiver Characteristics, and Child Outcomes

05/24/2000

There has been a longstanding interest in structural and caregiver characteristics in relation to children’s developmental outcomes, in part because the structural and caregiver characteristics are easier to measure and to monitor than process quality. An early study—the National Day Care Study (Ruopp et al., 1979)—included a clinical trial in which 3- and 4-year-olds were randomly assigned to 29 preschool classrooms with different child:adult ratios and levels of staff education. Two levels of ratio (5.4:1 vs. 7.4:1) were contrasted along with three levels of staff education (B.A., Associate of Arts, or less than an A.A. in early childhood education). Child behaviors were assessed at the beginning of the intervention and 9 months later. Children assigned to classrooms with fewer children obtained greater gains on measures of receptive language, general knowledge, cooperative behavior, and verbal initiations, and exhibited less hostility and conflict in their interactions with others than did children assigned to classrooms with larger numbers of children. Children whose assigned teachers had more education and training achieved greater gains in cooperative behavior, task persistence, and school readiness than children whose teachers had less education and training.

Correlational studies also have reported concurrent associations between child:adult ratio and children’s language, cognitive, and social functioning. Infants who attend centers with smaller child:adult ratios are found to have better receptive and expressive language skills than children who attend centers with larger child:adult ratios (Burchinal et al., 1996; Vernon-Feagans, Emanuel, and Blood, 1997). Lower child:adult ratios also are associated with higher Bayley scores (Burchinal et al., 1996) and with better social knowledge and social behaviors (Holloway and Reichhart-Erickson, 1988).

Teachers’ education and training also are related concurrently to child performance and adjustment. Burchinal et al. (1996) report that infants have better expressive language skills when their caregivers are better educated. Preschoolers’ receptive language skills are higher when caregivers have at least an Associate of Arts degree in a child-related field (Howes, 1997). Children whose caregivers have degrees in child-related fields received higher CBI intelligence scores than children with less-educated caregivers (Dunn, 1993). Caregiver education and training in child care homes are similarly related to children’s performance on standardized cognitive measures (Clarke-Stewart et al., 2000).

Observations of children’s experiences in classrooms and child care homes suggest why these relations might occur. Children are more likely to engage in language activities, complex play with objects, and creative activities in their classrooms when teachers have bachelor degrees in child-related fields (Howes, 1997). Toddlers are more likely to talk with their caregivers and to engage in complex play when classrooms have smaller child:adult ratios (Howes and Rubenstein, 1985). Toddlers are more likely to cry and to have their actions restricted in classrooms in which group sizes are larger (Howes and Rubenstein, 1985). In child care homes, positive caregiving is more likely when group sizes are smaller, caregivers are more educated, and caregivers have more specialized training pertaining to children (Clarke-Stewart et al., 2000).

An alternative research strategy has been to consider aggregated structural and caregiver characteristics. For example, the NICHD Study of Early Child Care (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 1999a) assessed four structural and caregiver characteristics (child:staff ratio, group size, caregiver specialized training in child development or early childhood education, and caregiver formal education) in terms of guidelines recommended by the American Public Health Association. The investigators then summed the number of structural and caregiver characteristics that met recommended guidelines, resulting in summed scores of 0 to 4. At 24 months, 10–12 percent of classrooms met all four standards, whereas 34 percent of the classrooms did so at 36 months. At 24 months, 9 percent of the observed centers met none of the recommended standards; 3 percent of the centers met none of the standards at 36 months.

Associations between the number of child care standards that were met and child outcomes were then tested, with family income and maternal sensitivity controlled (see Table 4). Children who attended centers that met more recommended guidelines had fewer behavior problems at 24 and 36 months, and higher school readiness and language comprehension scores at 36 months. There were significant linear trends between the number of recommended standards that were met and children’s concurrent adjustment.

Analyses also compared children who were enrolled in classrooms that met a given individual standard with children whose classrooms did not meet that standard (see Table 4). At 24 months, children displayed fewer behavior problems and more positive social behaviors when centers met the recommended child:adult ratio. At 36 months, children whose caregivers had specialized training or who had more formal education exhibited fewer behavior problems and obtained higher school readiness and language comprehension scores.

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