Sally Goddard Blythe reviews some of the literature on the effects of child care on emotional development.
We have probably come to accept that in the economic climate of today, mothers will return to work in the first years after having their children and that child care will be needed in her place, but under a new government proposal toddlers could face spending up to 10 hours a day in nurseries under a £1bn government plan to help boost employment among mothers. The document will invite nurseries and childminders to bid for funds to provide 30 hours a week free childcare for all three and four-year-olds extending opening hours from 6am to 8pm. The provision — which will double the existing 15 hours — will be available from next autumn. Increasingly, it seems that all that matters to successive governments when it comes to early child care are the figures. This growing acceptance of nursery care as the norm is in stark contrast to how other members of our species behave – humans are the only mammal who deliberately separates its young from the mother before it is physically able to take care of itself – the relentless trend towards state provision of child care ignores the emotional, developmental and social needs of very young children. Children are not simply miniature adults. A child’s brain feels, thinks and acts in completely different ways and the emotional brain of a young child is nurtured in the context of close loving relationships. Just as adult relationships need to be nourished by time spent together actively engaged in one another’s company to secure emotional attachments, proximity and engagement matter, and the younger the child, the more important it is. The Nursery and Child-care Debate
“Previous Government-funded studies indicate that children whose experience of education begins as young as two are likely to have a head start of several months in reading, writing, and arithmetic over those who are exclusively cared for at home. However, their findings also pointed to a slightly higher risk that children who had attended pre-school education would develop social and behaviour problems. In 1997, the then Department for Education and Skills commissioned a study to look into the benefits of pre-school education – the effective provision of pre-school education (EPPE) study. This study has followed 3,000 children from the age of three to the end of Key Stage 2. So far, the study has demonstrated that there are benefits of pre-school education for attainment and social and emotional development in Key Stage 1. Other findings include that children with experience of pre-school education demonstrate significantly higher attainment in Key Stage 1 national assessments in mathematics and English compared with children who have no experience of pre-school education. This study also found that the children of those parents who actively engaged in activities such as teaching songs and nursery rhymes and reading to the child did better at the end of Key Stage 1 compared to children whose parents did not engage in such activities. So far, so good for the pro-nursery education debate. The EPPE study will continue to follow children’s development to the end of Key Stage However, the conclusions about behavioural and social consequences of early child-care have been less clear. Children with 1–2 years pre-school experience were least likely to behave anti-socially on arrival at primary school, but for children who had three years of pre-school experience, the incidence of anti-social behaviour at school was higher than for children who had been cared for at home or those who had had only two years of pre-school education. The researchers concluded that, ‘although moderate levels of childminder care were not associated with increased anti-social behaviour, extremely high levels were’. When the care was provided by a relative such as the grandmother, the children’s behaviour was more cooperative. The Department also commissioned the University of Bristol to look at the impact of different types of childcare (including informal care, for instance with relatives) on children’s behavioural and cognitive outcomes at ages five and seven, using data from the Avon longitudinal study of parents and children. One interpretation of the findings is that social integration is one of the earliest developmental skills, which begins within the warm and caring environment of close and familiar relationships nurtured within a family environment provided in a consistent manner by a small number of familiar care-givers. This hypothesis has been given substance by a number of studies carried out around the world, which indicate that larger group-based care can have damaging effects on some aspects of emotional and social development for children under two. The situation reverses between two and three years, when group-based care appears to benefit all aspects of the child’s development. A study carried out by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the United States found that ‘the more time children spend in childcare from birth to age four and a half, the more adults tended to rate them as less likely to get along with others, as more assertive, as disobedient and as aggressive’. This is the opposite of what many people expect as it is often assumed that being with other children and a range of adults will improve children’s social skills. Caution should be exercised in interpreting results, because the emotional and social effects appear to be closely linked to the age at which a child is placed in child care as well quality and quantity of time spent away from the primary care-giver. A meta-analysis of the 101 childcare outcome studies from many countries published in peer-reviewed journals between 1957 and 1995 found robust evidence of adverse outcomes associated with non-maternal care in the areas of children’s infant–mother attachment security, their socio-emotional development (including increased anger, anxiety, and hostility in boys, and over-dependency, anxiety, and depression in girls), and in their behaviour (including hyperactivity, aggression, and non-compliance). They found no support for the belief that high quality day care is an acceptable substitute for parental care. In the UK, a government-funded study carried out by the University of London, Institute of Education concluded that, ‘high levels of group care before the age of three (and particularly before the age of two) were associated with higher levels of antisocial behaviour at age three’. This study suggested that higher quality care could reduce anti-social/worried behaviour, but did not eliminate it. Cortisol is a hormone that is released under stress. Level of cortisol can therefore be used as a physiological indicator of stress. Sims and others carried out a study in which they used samples of saliva to measure the cortisol level of children aged 3–5 years attending full day-care centres in Perth, Western Australia. The quality of the day-care programmes was also assessed using a standardized system of evaluation. The findings showed that children who attended day care demonstrated higher levels of cortisol than children in their homes. Children who attended high-quality programmes showed a decline across the school day, whereas children who attended programmes rated as unsatisfactory demonstrated an increase in cortisol level across the day.
Some children are easily overloaded by multiple or novel sensory stimuli. Although the ability to cope with multiple stimuli and new environments improves with age as sensory perception and processing become more mature, very young children can become easily stressed by busy environments from which they have no escape. If this occurs at an age before they have acquired the language to describe their discomfort, they will respond by ‘acting out’ their distress through behaviour. The key to providing safe and positive child-care seems to be to ensure that the child is mature enough to cope with the environment, and the quality of the environment meets the needs of your child. Constant over-arousal can be as damaging in different ways as an impoverished environment. Similar results to the Australian study were found at the Institute of Child Development of the University of Minnesota where researchers also examined the effects of day care, and found that in children younger than three, levels of cortisol rose in the afternoon during full days, but fell when they went home and when they were at home for the day. Quantity of time spent away from home, as well as age of the child, appear to be mediating factors. Just as long working hours make adults fatigued and stressed, children also get tired coping with a long working day. In the Minnesota study, children whose cortisol levels increased were also children that were described by their caregivers, teachers, and parents as being shyer and quieter. Shy children tend to feel overwhelmed by group settings or outside of the home, making it more of a struggle to integrate into a day-care environment. However, several of the studies point to there being a crucial difference in effect on behaviour, depending on the age of the children involved. Once again, the results indicate that before the age of two, children feel more secure if child-care is provided within the home and by a close family member. By three years of age, when language skills are beginning to take off, children seem to benefit in educational and emotional ways from some time spent in day care. Maturity is probably a key factor in the degree of stress experienced and subsequent behavioural outcomes. This raises questions about present government policy in pushing for more day-care provision to the exclusion of other types of child-care. While educational skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic can be caught up with later on (in other European countries children do not begin their formal education until 7 years of age, and at 6 years in the USA), the developmental period for establishing emotional security is harder to put right at a later age. Rather than extending the number of hours that children can spend in “looked after care”, it is my belief that we should be planning for greater flexibility in the time that mothers can return to work, enabling them to spend at least the first year and preferably the first two years at home, before being eased back into part-time work until the child is of school age. Lieselotte Ahnert and Michael Lamb suggest that ‘maladaptive behaviour on the part of children who spend many hours in child care may reflect not the direct effects of non-parental care but the inability of parents to buffer the enhanced levels of stress experienced in child care’. In other words, parents by their very presence act as external regulators of the child’s internal state.”
While child care from the age of three seems to be a positive force for educational and emotional development this does not mean that long hours spent in day care are good substitutes for parental care. Many hard working parents under financial pressure to work full time will welcome greater flexibility for dropping off and collection times, particularly for older pre-school children and few will probably choose to subject their child to a 10 hour day environment, but within this context is an insidious trend to “normalize” the replacement of parental care with state subsidized care.
Similar trends and experiments have been used in the past. A review of a small group of adults who had been brought up in a kibbutz found that there were many benefits for kibbutz reared children in terms of ability to cope with the demands of their community and realities of the larger cultural communities but the children of the kibbutz rated themselves as more anxious, were more critical of themselves and others and tended to succumb to a greater number of psychosomatic disorders.
Long working hours juggled with child care also affects parents. Tired, stressed parents find it difficult to provide the same calm, emotionally regulated environment for their children, or have time to enjoy their children.
Parents are the chief architects of society in the future. While on the one hand nursery education can help to bridge the gaps for children who come from homes impoverished in social and intellectual stimulus, they should not become the dominant influence. When a society ceases to value and barters the role of parenthood in exchange for national revenue, materialistic gain, status, or instant gratification, it potentially mortgages its own future. Qualities which cannot be as easily measured as figures on costs or educational attainment from year to year as a child grows and develops, such as self-esteem, self-regulation, compassion, tolerance and altruism are the qualities which define a society and will only become apparent when the next generation reaches adulthood. They have their origins in the first three years of life and are nurtured in the context of safe and loving relationships.
The only figure that really matters is the figure at home available to nurture every child as nature intended.