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Preschool day care: which type is best?

Preschool day care: Which type is best?

Quality of day care for young children is the focus of a "second wave' of research on child care by non-family members. The "first wave' of research concluded that there is nothing inherently harmful about the day care experience: Children receiving good care outside their homes are not at a measurable disadvantage when compared with children who stay home with a parent. Now researchers are comparing children in various situations to ask what is the best day care environment.

Children attending nursery school programs score consistently high on measures of "developmental competencies,' especially cognitive ability, social knowledge and sociability with an adult stranger, reports Alison Clarke-Stewart of the University of California at Irvine. Children home with babysitters score the lowest on these measures.

Clarke-Stewart's "Chicago Study of Childcare and Development' compared 80 children aged 2 and 3, mostly of middleclass and professional-class families, in four popular types of day care. Children going to another family's home for smallgroup care were most sociable, but least independent from their mothers. Children in full-time day care were most independent and highest in social reciprocity--for example, how cooperative the child was with the mother.

The investigators also examined how the children's skills related to characteristics differing among day care situations of the same general type. Among the findings were that children in a home setting do best when they interact frequently with a few other children; when there are no infants and younger toddlers present; and when the home is orderly, with few "adult-oriented decorative items.'

In nursery schools and day care centers, children do best in small (less than 18-member) groups of same-age or older children. The most effective teachers are those with a high level of overall education. "What was important, it seems, for children's all-around competence, was that the teacher not be too strict and demanding, nor too fond and physical,' Clarke-Stewart says. "In short, there were clear and sensible links between children's experiences in their day care settings and how they performed in standard situations that reflected their abilities. . . .'

However, Clarke-Stewart points out one "critical constraint' on her findings: Children were not randomly assigned to the day care programs. The parents who put their children in nursery school and day care centers were themselves the most highly educated. Clarke-Stewart concludes, "Day care is simply part of the child's total milieu.'

A narrower focus on day care centers in another study also indicates that a child's intellectual, language and social skills, as well as emotional adjustment, relate to the "total quality' of the day care environment. Quality of child care was described on the basis of language, reasoning and motor, creative and social activities, as well as furnishings, personal care and staff facilities. "Not surprisingly, good things tend to co-occur in day care centers,' Kathleen McCartney of Harvard University says.

"The study is of social policy interest because it clearly documents the impact of individual differences among day care environments,' says McCartney. Children of 166 families in nine day care centers in Bermuda were included in the study. In Bermuda, McCartney says, family characteristics play a minimal role in determining which day care center a child attends. The analysis took into consideration the age of each child, family characteristics, age at which the child began group day care and the amount of time the child spends at the center.

Neither of the last two characteristics affected children's measured skills or emotional adjustment. The investigators separately assessed the children's verbal interactions and found that the amount of conversation with caregivers correlated positively with the children's intellectual development, language development and social skills.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 15, 1985
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