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New study: Spending more time in a child care center does not lead to problem behavior for kids

Studies from five countries counter some previous research on child care and behavior.
child care center
The report found “little evidence” that behavior problems, including hitting, kicking, biting, fighting or bullying other children, increase as children spend more time in a child care center.
REUTERS/Kathleen Flynn

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Parents have a lot on their minds when they send their children to child care. Will the child cry during drop-off, eat or skip a nap?

But a new study shows there is one thing parents may not need to be concerned about: whether kids’ time spent in a child care center will lead to problem behavior.

The study, written by researchers in North America and Europe and published in Child Development last month, looked at data from seven studies on more than 10,000 toddlers and preschoolers in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Canada and the United States. The report found “little evidence” that behavior problems, including hitting, kicking, biting, fighting or bullying other children, increase as children spend more time in a child care center.

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“Finding there is not this causal link between children spending time in child care and having more externalizing problems is very reassuring for parents,” said Catalina Rey-Guerra, the lead researcher, a doctoral candidate at Boston College and a fellow at the college’s Institute of Early Childhood Policy. The results also bolster findings showing that early childhood education can have a positive effect on children, she added.

The report adds to a growing body of research on the link between time spent in child care and negative behaviors, much of which has yielded mixed results. A 2019 report on Quebec’s universal preschool program, for example, found children who were placed in participating child care programs had higher rates of aggression and illness, as reported by parents, than their peers living elsewhere in Canada. Those negative effects also persisted into adulthood. (Some suggested that program quality was the issue, as many children enrolled in participating child care centers may have had higher-quality environments at home compared to the care environments.) Similarly, a 2007 study of children in the United States found more time in center-based care was linked to teacher-reported problem behavior later in elementary school.

However, other studies have found no relation between child care enrollment and problem behavior or even the opposite effect, with children cared for primarily by their mothers — especially in high-risk families — showing more physical aggression than those attending group care.

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Over the years, researchers have suggested theories for why some studies have found negative impacts on behavior that seem to be linked with time spent in child care centers. These include the ideas that child care may diminish a child’s attachment to a parent or children may learn bad behavior from peers. These theories have not been proven, Rey-Guerra said. The findings are more likely due to poor caregiver-child relationships and negative peer interactions, according to a 2015 study. That study also found behavior problems were reduced in high quality care.

The new report did not look at the quality of centers, an aspect other research has shown can impact child outcomes beyond behavior. However, Rey-Guerra said researchers tried to go beyond previous research on the issue of child care quantity and behavior to examine potential factors that could impact a child’s behavior, including family income and maternal education. Even when considering these factors, the results showing no link between time in child care and poor behavior still held up, she said, making the researchers’ findings “more robust.” These results were consistent across different age groups, a finding that “strengthens the argument that time in child care is not detrimental for children in different developmental periods,” the authors concluded. Researchers also found no correlation between a change in hours spent in center-based care and a change in the amount of problem behavior.

Still, Rey-Guerra noted the study was constrained to short-term effects. She cautioned against applying the findings to countries outside of the study, since the included countries are industrialized, wealthy nations. While this study expanded the scope of previous research by looking at countries outside of the United States and Canada, she said there’s “still this lingering question of, ‘Would this then be also generalizable to other types of societies, to other political contexts?”

This story about center-based care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.