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Study Finds Link Between Child Care and Test Scores

July 1, 1999

Children attending child care centers that meet professional standards for quality score higher on school readiness and language tests and have fewer behavioral problems than their peers in centers not meeting such standards, according to a study appearing in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The investigation was conducted by researchers affiliated with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) study of early child care. The study, initiated by the NICHD and conducted by investigators at the NICHD and 14 universities around the country, had enrolled more than 1,216 children and their families from 10 locations throughout the United States.

"These findings show that concrete standards of quality-- which parents and policy makers can evaluate-- make a difference in children's development," said NICHD Director Duane Alexander, MD.

Each state has authored its own set of child care regulations. Because these vary considerably from state to state, the authors looked to professional guidelines established in 1992 by the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Specifically, the guidelines recommend child-staff ratios (3:1 for infants, 4:1 for two-year olds, 7:1 for three-year olds), group sizes (either 6 infants, or 8 two-year olds, or 14 three-year olds) and for teacher training (some post secondary training in child development and early childhood education or a related field).

Results from the NICHD study of early child care show that the average school readiness percentile score for children in classes meeting none of the recommendations was 36 (14 percentiles below the norm of 50), versus 52 for children in classes meeting all the guidelines.

For language comprehension, the authors noted that children who attended child care facilities not meeting any recommended standards achieved lower-than-average scores (96, when the norm is 100). Meeting all the guidelines was associated with above-average scores (105).

Mothers whose children attended the facilities that did not meet the guidelines rated their children as having more behavior problems than did the mothers whose children attended facilities that met all the guidelines.

The researchers also looked at each guideline individually to determine its effect on children's development. The study found that children fared better when child-staff ratios were lower, and also when teachers had more training and education. For example, children in centers where care givers met the standards for education scored in the 51st percentile (about average) on school readiness, while children in centers where care givers did not meet these standards scored in the 39th percentile. Group size did not appear to affect children's development.

Most of the child care settings studied did not meet all the standards. Compliance ranged from 10 percent for infant classrooms, to 34 percent for 3-year olds.

Of the 50 sets of state child care regulations, only three were found to meet the APHA/AAP recommended child-staff ratio for toddlers. In addition, only nine states' regulations met the teacher training standards for infants.

Few prior studies have examined the effects of child care standards on children's development. The NICHD study examined a greater number of centers and observed a greater number of children than did any of these previous studies.

The researchers studied 250 children in center care who were enrolled in the study when they were 1 month of age and observed through 36 months of age for this report. These are part of the larger group of children who have been studied by the NICHD research team since 1991. The children in the NICHD study of early child care are currently in second grade, and study investigators plan to follow them as they grow older. 

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