“Balancing the competing needs of work and family life is a challenge for most households, but the difficulties may be greatest for households with young children, defined here as newborns through age five. Parents in many of these families struggle to find sufficient time both to fulfill work responsibilities and provide the intensive care that young children require.” The Future of Children: Work and Family
The first difficult and very important work and family decision a parent makes is who will care for the child while the parent is working. Choosing childcare is one of the largest stressors that a parent faces when returning to work.
A new study in the journal Child Development finds that high-quality early child care can have a significant impact on children’s wellbeing, and is important for mothers as well. High-quality child care is not about drilling children in educational facts, but more about low student to teacher ratio, age appropriate books and toys, and teachers who are attentive to the children and their developmental needs.
“Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at data from more than 1,300 children whose care settings were evaluated at various intervals from the time they were a month old until they turned 4 ½. Their mothers were interviewed too. Those moms whose kids were cared for early on in “high-quality non-parental care” settings–either in day care centers or in others’ homes–were more likely than mothers who cared for their kids themselves or sent them to low-quality day care to be involved in their children’s schools starting in kindergarten… Robert Crosnoe, a professor of sociology in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin who led the study, notes that “children make a smoother transition to school when families and schools are strongly connected.”
As noted in the Future of Children’s Work and Family volume, formal (center- or school-based) early childhood education and care received immediately before kindergarten appears to promote school readiness. Children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, who attend prekindergarten in the year before formal schooling begin that formal schooling with better math and reading skills, although some of these gains may be transitory or offset by later compensatory education that targets less-prepared children. Head Start participation is also associated with better dental care and overall health as well as with reductions in obesity.
Despite these positive findings, however, the volume is careful to note that, when taken together, research findings related to early childhood care and education are ambiguous, due in part to the high variability in services provided and the difficulty of determining which outcomes are of key interest (for example, cognitive test scores at school entry versus long-term educational and developmental outcomes.)
The one finding that remains certain from the current research base is that quality of care matters. High-quality care mitigates any negative consequences of early childhood care and education and enhances its benefits.
For more on this issue, go to the Future of Children Work and Family chapter on “Policies to Assist Parents with Young Children.”