High-quality child care provides long-term benefits

KindergartenA recent large-scale, five-year study provides evidence that the quality of children’s preschool child care affects their skills in early elementary grades even after adjusting for family background.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, the University of California/Los Angeles, and Yale University studied 733 children from preschool to second grade.

Effects on child development were found from two aspects of their childcare experience: the nature of classroom practices and the closeness of the teacher-child relationship. Classroom practices were related to children’s language and academic skills, whereas the closeness of their relationship with their teacher was related to both cognitive and social skills.

Family characteristics influenced some outcomes, indicating stronger positive effects of childcare quality for children from at-risk backgrounds.

Studies of early intervention programs for low income children have found long-term positive effects on cognitive development and academic achievement at least through the third or fourth grade, especially for such indicators as retention in grade, special-education placement and intellectual functioning.

Because the large majority of children in the United States now attend community childcare centers, these researchers wanted to find out if preschool childcare experiences influence the general population of children in similar ways.

Previous research on the long-term effects of child care has shown mixed results. No earlier studies have addressed the long-term effects into elementary school for a large sample of children while controlling for family background characteristics.

The three questions addressed by this study were:

  • Is the level of childcare quality in preschool related to children’s patterns of cognitive and social development between the ages of four and eight?
  • How long-lasting are the influences of childcare quality?
  • Are there differential effects of childcare quality on outcomes for disadvantaged children?

Study Method

The data included measurement of preschool childcare quality and assessments of children’s language, cognitive, and socioemotional development over a five-year period. The study included 176 daycare centers in Los Angeles County; Hartford, Connecticut; the Front Range in Colorado; and the Piedmont region in North Carolina. The sample of children was similar to
the U.S. population generally.

Thirty-one percent of the children represented minorities. Classroom practices were observed by teams of evaluators using four observational measures of quality: the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, the Caregiver Interaction Scale, the UCLA Early Childhood Observation Form, and the Adult Involvement Scale.

These measured the developmental appropriateness of classroom practices, teacher sensitivity and responsiveness to children, and the extent to which the teaching style was child-centered rather than didactic.

The scores on these four instruments tended to be highly correlated. Kindergarten and second-grade classrooms were observed briefly using shortened forms of the assessments to obtain a rough measure of their quality. Each child was tested during preschool at about age 3 years, and in kindergarten and again in second grade.

Two instruments were used each time: the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised and preacademic, reading, and math subtests of the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement-Revised. Teachers rated children’s social and cognitive skills each year using the Classroom Behavior Inventory. In addition, each teacher rated her relationship with each child using the Student-Teacher Relationship Scale.


Overall, childcare centers were well within the medium quality range; routine care needs were met but there were limited opportunities for learning activities, individual attention or language stimulation. In general, teachers were at least minimally responsive to children and classes tended to lean toward the child-centered rather than the didactic approach.

Children from more advantaged families were more likely to enter child care at a later age and to experience higher-quality care with better classroom practices and closer teacher-child relationships.

However, the quality of preschool classrooms was unrelated to the quality of elementary classrooms that followed. Children from high-quality preschools were not more likely to attend high-quality elementary classrooms.

These researchers analyzed the association between children’s preschool experiences and patterns of language, cognitive, and social development from four to eight years of age. Background variables, age of entry into child care, ethnicity, and gender were considered. After adjusting for background variables, children attending higher-quality childcare centers tended to have higher language scores.

Children with closer relationships with their teachers also had higher language scores. Children’s math skills were positively affected by the quality of their preschool and the closeness of the relationship with their teacher. These effects were stronger for children from less advantaged homes.

Although there was a decline in the influence of teacher-child closeness as children got older, this association was still statistically significant through second grade. Children with closer relationships to their preschool teachers and who attended higher-quality day care had fewer behavior problems through second grade.

These results provide some evidence that even after adjustments for background characteristics, preschool childcare quality is related to children’s skills in second grade.


The size of the effects of childcare quality on children’s academic and social skills through second grade was significant but smaller than those for background variables such as mother’s education. Effects were found for receptive language ability, math ability, cognitive and attention skills, behavior problems, and sociability.

Preschool quality had a stronger positive effect on development for children from less advantaged families. There was little indication in this data that children who experience higher-quality childcare environments remain in higher-quality classrooms once they enter school.

Not only is better quality child care related to better outcomes, but the more the quality is increased, the better off children are. These findings provide support for the importance of high-quality preschool experiences as a way to promote school readiness and school success.

This study provides longitudinal evidence that higher-quality care is modestly associated with a wide variety of better cognitive and social outcomes for children from diverse backgrounds. In some cases the positive effects of higher-quality care were even stronger and longer-lasting for disadvantaged children.

“The Relation of Preschool Child-Care Quality to Children’s Cognitive and Social Developmental Trajectories through Second Grade” Child Development Volume 72, Number 5, October 2001 Pp. 1534-1553.

Published in ERN, December 2001/January 2002, Volume 15, Number 1.

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