How are the children doing?

Keryn O'Neill & Sue Younger

A literature review on young children in childcare

Over a two-year period, the Brainwave Trust conducted a literature review to see what is known and what is not known about the impact of childcare on children – things such as their development, behaviour, stress levels, relationships and school outcomes. Are there benefits or harms from children being in childcare, especially when compared to parental care? We’ve looked for evidence and tried our hardest to be objective and fair. We’ve made sure that, where possible, we went back to the original studies. The result is a document we are very proud of. A summary, from which this Briefing Paper is taken, is here.

It’s a pity kids and families don’t come in one shape and size; it would be so much easier to find answers. And Early Childhood Education or Daycare – whatever you like to call it – doesn’t come in one shape or size either. There’s part-time care, full-time care, informal care, centre-based care, home-based care. There’s care starting at six weeks of age, and care starting at age three years. These things can make a lot of difference. An awful lot of studies focus on just one sort, or one age group. Centre-based care is the easiest to study, so it seems to be studied the most. Children younger than three have been studied a lot less, as their participation in out-of-home care is relatively recent. The studies we found only rarely looked at parental versus non-parental care. A lot looked at what ‘high-quality’ care may look like and how it compared with ‘low-quality’ non-parental care.

All this variability in care makes it hard to generalise and hard to use terminology. We used the term ‘childcare’ to denote any non-parental care. This can range from individual care in a home by someone other than a parent (for example, home-based caregiver, nanny, au pair) to centre-based care. (Our literature review paper makes distinctions wherever possible.)

A lot of the studies, of course, are overseas studies. Because research is expensive and difficult, there is a scarcity of local research.

It’s vital that we all take into account that these studies look at ‘averages’ and ‘means’, ‘increased risks’ and so on. None of these things mean that individual children will necessarily experience any of these benefits or harms – it’s simply that they are more likely, or less likely to. Also, sometimes individuals may be affected in a big way, even though the average effect in their group may be small.

We’re never going to come up with a simple answer. Each family makes the decisions they feel are best for their situation, weighing up all sorts of factors. It is not helpful, nor desirable, for parents to feel guilty. Nor is it helpful or desirable for us to ‘fudge’ information for fear of making parents feel guilty.

One thing we do know, though, is that these early years are important. The majority of brain development occurs from conception to age one and continues at a rapid pace through the first few years. Very young babies learn to respond to the world through their relationship with their caregivers. The way they are responded to as babies can affect their ability to successfully engage with others and to manage life’s day-to-day stressors.

We know also that certain life experiences increase risk and others act as protective factors. Every child has a unique set of factors, and outcomes are a result of a complex interplay between genes and experience. Risk factors only increase the risk of poor outcomes; they do not determine poor outcomes. Similarly, protective factors only increase the likelihood of good outcomes. Risk factors are cumulative; one risk factor in a child’s life may only slightly increase the risk of poor outcomes, however three or four in combination will elevate risk significantly.

The more we understand about the importance of early childhood development, the more governments and communities want to invest in it. This is a good thing. There is a search for tangible things to implement, and there are a lot of reports as to the benefits of quality early childhood education. Well-intentioned people are advocating greater participation for all children, but important subtleties such as starting age and hours of care and quality can get lost in these conversations.

Much of the writing about the benefits of childcare draws upon a small number of studies of multi-faceted early interventions for vulnerable groups, which have childcare as just one component. Some studies showed long term benefits for at-risk children in terms of health, cognitive development, and school achievement: the children involved experienced lasting benefits regarding education, employment, reduced crime, and associated economic benefits. The problem is, these findings are sometimes used to promote childcare for all children, despite the fact that the programmes studied do not reflect typical childcare models or experiences in New Zealand.

Three particularly influential examples of these early intervention studies are the Perry Preschool project, the Chicago Child-Parent Centres, and the Carolina Abecedarian Project.

The interventions were multi-faceted, involving high quality childcare, but also wrap-around services for the family such as home visits, parent education and health services. This makes it difficult to know whether the benefits arose from the childcare, or some other aspect of the intervention, or the combination of them. Further, the childcare component was of much higher quality than typically available care, including teacher pay, teacher qualifications, teacher: child ratios, and smaller groups. The majority of children were older (3-4 years old) and attended childcare part-time (2.5-3 hours a day); the findings may not be transferable to children in other situations. A comparison between non-parental and parental care was not done – the comparison was between the multi-faceted intervention, and a control group of children in typically available childcare of the time.

Despite the very particular nature of these interventions in the lives of children considered at risk, the positive results for the children have been generalised by some authors and advocates to suggest that childcare on its own, of any nature, duration and starting age, is beneficial to all children and to society.

Although the evidence suggests that some high quality childcare may benefit children over three years old in certain circumstances, this does not mean that starting earlier and attending for longer hours is also beneficial. In fact, our research indicates that there may be risks involved with non-parental care “too early” and “for too long each day”. This is especially so under the age of one year.

Delaying participation during the first few years and encouraging part-time care over full-time care may well reduce the risks associated with non-parental care of children. When childcare is provided, ensuring that care is high quality may lessen risk.

When governments are thinking about policy, or parents are looking at their own arrangements, factors such as the age of the child, the length of hours of attendance and the quality and stability of the care being provided need to be considered. As many studies indicate parenting still has more influence over outcomes than childcare, investment in parenting support may reap more long-term benefits for children than investment in participation in childcare, especially before age three.




Note: this Briefing Paper is based on, and includes extracts from, Our literature search into childcare: How are the children doing (2016). Brainwave Trust. Used with the permission of the Brainwave Trust. 


Categories: Education
Keryn O'Neill & Sue Younger
About the author

Keryn O'Neill & Sue Younger

Keryn O’Neill has a BA (Education & Psychology), MA (Psychology), and Post Graduate Certificate in Educational Psychology. She is passionate about the opportunity Brainwave provides to share evidence-based information about children’s needs during the very important early years. Keryn started as an Educator at Brainwave when her children were young, with this knowledge as well as being a parent Keryn brings a very well rounded research perspective to Brainwave. As her own children enter adolescence she also has a growing personal interest in the research in this area! She loves the learning her role involves and then sharing her knowledge with others, both through writing and training opportunities. Email: Sue Younger is an award-winning writer and film-maker. Her first novel, Days Are Like Grass, was published in 2016. She made prime-time television documentaries for more than twenty years. Sue completed a Masters of Creative Writing (Hons) at AUT in 2011. She also holds an MA (Hons) in English, a Diploma in Teaching, and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Professional Ethics. Sue is a Trustee of the Brainwave Trust.