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

05/24/2000

Other studies have considered relations between structural and caregiver characteristics in relation to children’s subsequent developmental outcomes (see Table 3). Howes (1988), for example, examined structural and caregiver characteristics at 3 years in relation to children’s first-grade adjustment. Quality in 81 centers was defined in terms of five areas: teacher training, child:adult ratio, group size, a planned curriculum, and space. Higher-quality care met recognized standards in all five areas; medium-quality care met standards on three or four dimensions, and low-quality care met three or fewer standards. During the intervening period, the 87 children attended the same university lab school, meaning that they experienced classes with the same or similar structural and caregiver characteristics.

In analyses that controlled for maternal work status, family structure, and maternal education, Howes found that children who had attended higher-quality child care programs prior to enrollment in the university school had fewer behavior problems and better work habits as compared to children who had attended lower quality programs. Additionally, boys who had attended higher-quality centers received better first-grade teacher ratings of academic performance compared to other boys.

Using a different sample of 80 children who were enrolled in center-based care, Howes (1990) examined relations between a structural quality composite (child:adult ratio, caregiver training, caregiver stability) measured at 18, 24, 30, and 36 months, and children’s kindergarten adjustment. High-quality care was defined as ratios of 4:1 or less for children who were < 2 years and 7:1 for children > 2 years, caregivers with 12 units of college-level child development courses, and no more than two different primary caregivers in the prior year. Low-quality care was defined as ratios of 6:1 or higher for children who were 2 years or less and ratios of 10:1 for children who were older than 2 years, caregivers with no formal child development training, and more than two primary caregivers in the prior year.

Associations between structural quality in the first 3 years and children’s later preschool and kindergarten adjustment were tested, controlling for a family socialization composite and a family demographic composite. Children with a history of poor-quality child care during the first 3 years were rated by their preschool teachers as being more difficult and by their kindergarten teachers as being more hostile. The children also engaged in less social pretend play and displayed less positive affect in their preschool classroom.

Recent research from the Otitis Media Study has focused on specific structural and caregiver characteristics in relation to subsequent child developmental outcomes (Burchinal et al., in press). The researchers initially recruited 89 children who were 4 to 9 months of age for a study of the effects of otitis media on children’s development. Children attended 27 centers that varied in quality. Child care quality was assessed annually using the ECERS and ITERS. Children whose child care classrooms met recommended guidelines for child-staff ratios exhibited better receptive language and functional communication skills over time as compared to children whose classrooms did not meet recommended ratio guidelines, controlling for child gender, family poverty, and cognitive stimulation and emotional support in the home. Caregiver education also predicted children’s adjustment, but only for girls: Girls whose caregivers had at least 14 years of education (with or without early childhood training) had better cognitive and receptive language skills over time compared to girls whose caregivers had fewer than 14 years of education, controlling for the family factors.

Blau (1999c) also has examined structural and caregiver characteristics in relation to children’s subsequent developmental outcomes. For these analyses, he used secondary data obtained from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), an ongoing nationally representative study of 12,652 youth begun in 1979. Beginning in 1986, information about children of the female respondents was collected. Mothers also provided information about their children’s primary child care arrangements—the number of children cared for in the group, the number of adult care providers in the arrangement, and whether the main caregiver had specialized training in early childhood education or child development. Blau then averaged these maternal reports of structural and caregiver characteristics through age 2 and for ages 3–5 years. Children completed the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), a measure of receptive language skills, at 3 years or older. Mothers reported on children’s behavior problems at 4 years or older. Children completed math and reading subscales of the Peabody Individual Achievement Test (PIAT) at 5 years or older.

Simple correlations revealed statistically significant, but small, associations between mothers’ reports of caregiver training when the children were in infant/toddler care and the children’s later performance. Children whose mothers reported that their caregivers had more specialized training obtained higher math and receptive language scores. When type of care was controlled, these associations continued to be significant. Blau then asked if these structural and caregiver factors uniquely predicted child performance in a regression model that included 64 additional child care and family variables. These controls included number of arrangements that were used, hours per week in care, months per year in care, paid cash for care, cost of care, center care, family day care home, relative care, child gender, cognitive stimulation, emotional support, Hispanic ethnicity, black ethnicity, grandmother worked when mother was 14, mother’s education, grandmother’s education, fraction of mother’s preschool years her mother was present, fraction of mother’s high school years her father was present, month of pregnancy in which mother first received prenatal care, child’s birth order, Catholic, child received well-care visit in first quarter, mother’s age, mother’s age at birth of child, siblings in various age groups, and fraction of pregnancy during which mother worked. In ordinary least squares regression analyses, relations between maternal reports of caregiver training and children’s math and receptive language scores were no longer evident when these other variables were controlled. From these analyses, Blau concluded:

“There seems to be little association on average between child care inputs experienced during the first three years of life and subsequent child development, controlling for family background and the home environment.” (p. 20)

Blau’s conclusion does not appear warranted, for several reasons. First, his analyses relied on maternal reports of structural and caregiver characteristics. Questions can be raised about whether mothers can provide this information accurately, especially retrospectively. Unfortunately, Blau provides no evidence regarding the accuracy of these reports. In order to estimate the accuracy of mothers’ concurrent reports of structural and caregiver characteristics, we turned to the NICHD Study of Early Child Care data set, which included both mothers’ and caregivers’ reports of group size and child-adult ratio. These reports were compared to observers’ independent counts of ratio and group size during 2-day visits. The mean correlation between mothers’ and caregivers’ reports of group size for children in centers was .55 (range = .51 to .63). The mean correlation between maternal reports of child:adult ratio and observed ratios was .33 (range = .27 to .42). These figures suggest that mother concurrent reports can be viewed as moderately reliable. Maternal retrospective reports of group size and ratio appear to be considerably less reliable. In other studies, near-zero correlations were obtained between observational assessments of group size and child-adult ratio when children were age 4 years (Vandell and Powers, 1983) and maternal retrospective reports of these same structural variables 4 years later (Vandell, Henderson, and Wilson, 1988).

To our knowledge, there are no data available from which the accuracy of maternal reports of caregiver training can be evaluated. We suspect, based on our own personal experiences, that mothers are less likely to know about caregiver training than about group size and ratio, which they can observe. Taken together, we believe that the lack of precision in the mothers’ reports in the NLSY result in an underestimation of effects associated with structural and caregiver characteristics.

Blau also adopted a stringent, perhaps unrealistic, test for long-term effects. Child outcomes were assessed a minimum of 2 years after mothers reported structural and caregiver characteristics, and the lag appears to have averaged 5 years or more because children were reported to be, on average, 8 years of age when outcomes were assessed. Interestingly, there was some evidence of longitudinal associations when shorter time lags were considered (even though mothers’ reports were used). For example, significant relations were found between maternal reports of child:adult ratios and caregiver training during the first 3 years and behavioral adjustment and math scores for children who were less than 9 years of age. Relations were not evident for very long time period, i.e., children who were older than 9 years. Smaller group sizes during the preschool period (3–5 years) were associated with higher scores on math, reading, and language performance. Lower child:staff ratios were associated with fewer behavior problems. The long lag between the infant quality reports and the child outcome assessments is further complicated by the omission of quality reports during the older preschool years, resulting in an underestimation of effects associated with child care quality.

Conclusions. Structural and caregiver characteristics have been found to be associated with children’s academic, cognitive, behavioral, and social development. Smaller group sizes, lower child-caregiver ratios, and more caregiver training and education appear to have positive effects on these important developmental outcomes. Future work might address threshold levels for these child care characteristics, or the point at which further improvements in structural quality do not yield additional developmental benefits for children.

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