The day-care scare

Are nurseries really turning toddlers into thugs?

Dr Helene Guldberg

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Topics Politics

Front-page newspaper headlines last week claimed that day nurseries for children under two were turning kids into ‘thugs’ (1).

Reports claimed that ‘the popularity of nurseries with parents does not match the conclusions of researchers around the world’, and cited ‘new evidence’ of nurseries increasing the incidence of ‘antisocial behaviour and aggression’ (2).

Writing in the UK Guardian, Madeleine Bunting said that ‘instinctively, it doesn’t feel quite right’ to place babies as young as four months in a nursery; she said she felt vindicated when she found that ‘research on both sides of the Atlantic has reached remarkably similar conclusions; namely, that large quantities of care in nursery before the age of three increases the incidence of insecurity and aggression in children’ (3).

But what evidence are these claims based on? Bunting is referring to two large-scale longitudinal studies: one in America by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) called ‘Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development’; and the other in the UK, ‘The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE)’. But neither study makes for ‘uncomfortable reading’, as Bunting claims. Nor do they show evidence of any long-term deleterious effect in children attending day-care from an early age.

The NICHD has carried out one of the most comprehensive studies of children’s development to date, involving research teams from universities across the USA. It has been following 1364 families from their infant’s birth in 1991 through to this year. The data for the first two phases of the study are now available (4). The children’s development is assessed using a multitude of different methods, including: observations by trained researchers; face-to-face and telephone interviews; standardised tests of cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development; and questionnaires.

Having conducted such a large-scale study looking at 500 different variables, it is not surprising that some statistically significant results were found. However, these results need to be investigated and analysed in order to glean their meaning – which was something sorely missing from the media discussion of the findings.

Most parents find it hard to hand their children over to the care of near strangers – strangers who are not going to show the same amount of attention and warmth towards their children as they do. But none of the evidence to date indicates that nursery care is likely to cause children any harm, or damage children’s relationship with their parents. Contrary to what Bunting implies, the NICHD study has not found that childcare disrupted children’s attachment relationships with their mothers; children who spent long hours in nurseries were not found to be more ‘insecurely attached’.

The NICHD study did find a link between the time spent in day-care and behaviour problems at four-and-a-half years old. The percentage of children who spent 30 hours or more in childcare with above-average ratings of ‘aggression’, ‘disobedience’ or ‘assertiveness’ was 17 per cent. This is not an insignificant amount. But one could equally highlight the inverse, which is that more than four out of five children who had attended day-care since infancy did not show an increase in ‘problem behaviours’ at four-and-a-half years old. However, the most important point, which was indicated by the US researchers, is that the percentage of children with above-average ratings of behaviour problems in any normal sample is 17 per cent (5). So the sample of day-care children was actually no different to other children.

The main finding of the UK study ‘Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE)’, which investigated the progress and development of 3000 children in various pre-school educational settings, was that an earlier start in pre-school education was related to ‘better intellectual development’ and ‘improved independence, concentration and sociability’ by the time children started school. It also found that ‘high levels of “group care” before the age of three (and particularly before the age of two) were associated with higher levels of anti-social behaviour at age three’ (6).

But this doesn’t mean that these children were turning into thugs. Just because children are found to be more aggressive at a particular stage in their lives, it doesn’t mean that they will continue to be so. It could be the case that children in day-care from an early age exhibit more ‘problem behaviour’ (normal childhood behaviour such as demanding attention, arguing and getting into fights with other children, or talking back to adults) earlier than children who have not spent their early years in nursery.

However, children’s behaviour changes as they grow. As Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at George Washington University Medical School, points out, measures of behaviour in young children are a poor predictor of later outcomes. A four-year-old may be disobedient today, but it isn’t necessarily clear what that means for the child’s behaviour tomorrow.

In addition, the meaning of many social and emotional behaviours may not become apparent until the child is older. Behaviours that observationally look very similar have different meanings for different children. Talking back to adults may be a sign of disobedience and insularity in one child, but it could be a sign of self-confidence and inquisitiveness in another. In fact, the limitations of the measures for social and emotional development used in both of these large-scale studies have been recognised. Behavioural measures haven’t been standardised in the way that measures for cognitive and linguistic development have, partly because behavioural measures have a much shorter history of use.

Quantifying the effect of childhood experiences on adult life is almost impossible. It may be the case that we are shaped by the type of care we receive in infancy. Childhood experiences do play their part in informing our attitudes and behaviour in later life, and our personalities start taking shape at an early age. But this doesn’t mean that we are determined by our childhood influences. Children’s attitudes, coping-mechanisms and personalities can change remarkably.

There could be much to be gleaned from these large-scale studies of children’s development. But headlines such as the Guardian’s ‘fear on nursery care forces rethink’, which argued that the government should reconsider the amount of resources being invested in early childcare provision, go way beyond what any of the research actually shows. We need to ask what the consequences of such scare-mongering is for parents, who are made to feel guilty about the possibility that they are not giving their children the best start in life.

Dr Helene Guldberg has a PhD in developmental psychology and is an associate lecturer in child development at the Open University.

Read on:

Parents and kids

(1) Evening Standard, 8 July 2004

(2) Fear on nursery care forces rethink, Guardian, 8 July 2004

(3) Nursery Tales, Guardian, 8 July 2004

(4) NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development

(5) The NICHD Child Care Study Results: What do they mean for parents, child-care professionals, employers and decision makers?, National Network for Childcare

(6) The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: findings from pre-school period, Institute of Education

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Topics Politics

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