Research & Action Report Fall/Winter 2004
You have been conducting research in child development and child care at the Wellesley Centers for Women for over 15 years. What initially inspired you to pursue this career? And what continues to inspire you?
Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. I started my undergraduate studies intending to study elementary education. However, I soon decided I should be prepared to teach all grades, as well as English and math. To do this meant taking extra classes, many of which met during the summer. One summer I took a linguistics class and fell in love with psycholinguistics and language development. I went on to receive my master’s degree in early childhood education and was able to study even more about linguistics. While pursuing my doctoral degree in language development at Harvard Graduate School of Education, I became interested in social policy and my interest in child care blossomed. At WCW I am able to combine my interest in child development and child care, and have been motivated by the desire to make a positive difference in the lives of children.
Can you tell us a little bit about the studies that you are working on now?
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development is a longitudinal study designed to determine the relationship between children’s early experiences and their developmental outcomes. More than 1,300 families and their newborn children in 10 states throughout the U.S. were recruited for this study. We separated the study into three phases: Stage I, from birth to 36 months; Stage II, from 36 months to second grade; and Stage III, from second to seventh grade. At each of these three phases, our staff has followed these children and their families through visits to their homes, childcare settings, and schools, and through family visits to our laboratory and phone calls several times each year. We have been studying the children’s cognitive development, language development, social development, health, academic achievement, and family functioning from infancy to school age. Nancy Marshall and I are two of the directors of this study.
A second study, Family Income, Infant Child Care, and Child Development, funded by the Child Care Bureau and the Harold Benenson Memorial Research Fund, is a longitudinal study designed to examine the links between family income, maternal employment, work and family strains and gains, the quality and cost of child care, and infant development at 1, 2, and 3 years of age. The database contains extensive information about the children’s language and social development and about the family, including employment, family income, work and family strains and gains, and parenting issues.
Finally, the Massachusetts Cost and Quality Studies, co-funded by the Administration for Children and Families and the Massachusetts Department of Education, examined the cost and quality of early care and education in 100 community-based preschools, 100 publicly funded preschools, 200 family-child-care homes, and 200 community-based centers serving infants and toddlers in Massachusetts. This study is directed by Nancy Marshall, and I serve as a co-principal investigator.
What are some of your most interesting observations, based on your long experience with these issues?
One of the most important is that the family is the most powerful influence on child development. Family has more influence on the development of a child than child care, peers, friends, or school. This places a huge responsibility on the family to raise children to be the best they can be. Another valuable lesson is that reading to children—from the time they are newborns and continuing through the school years—will and does make a difference. Children who are read to when young learn the value of reading and can do well when they enter school. It is also important to note that high-quality child care can make a difference; children in high-quality care do better with respect to language and social development, as well as school readiness skills.
Then do you think all children are better off in a child-care program than at home?
The issue is more complex than that. In today’s world, the majority of mothers and fathers work, and the majority of children are in some form of child care. Whatever choice a family makes regarding child care, that decision needs to be respected by others. Families should not need to defend their choices.
Do you think our national policies on child-care are adequate?
Given that child care is part of our national landscape, I am continually amazed that our country has no national child-care policy. With a national policy that included national standards, we might be better prepared to provide highquality child care to all children. In turn, children would be better prepared when they entered formal schooling.
How is your research connected to WCW’s mission?
I feel that WCW is unique when it comes to the kind of research I do because of its mission. I am trying to shape a better world for children and their families, and that is something that WCW has been working on for some 30 years. Moreover, the work is through a feminist lens, which shapes the kinds of research questions I ask.
Has your research influenced the choices you’ve made as a parent?
Absolutely. Although research cannot give a parent “yes” or “no” answers, it has guided choices my husband and I have made with respect to choosing child care when my children were younger, reading and playing with them, and helping them with their schoolwork. We both understand the important role the family plays in children’s development and the role models we present to our children.
What future research plans do you have? Are you hoping to replicate the Cost and Quality Studies in different states across the U.S.?
I am very excited about the grant I’ve just received to study the relationship between early child care and school readiness. I am also continuing my involvement with the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and the Family Income, Infant Child Care, and Child Development Study, and think that replicating the Cost and Quality studies in other states would be beneficial. We’ve done so in Maine and we learned a great deal from our studies there and in Massachusetts, and could learn from other states, as well. I would like to study the school-readiness skills of children from all forms of child care and the role of professional development of child-care providers with respect to children’s developmental outcomes and school-readiness skills.