Public Release: 

New research shows that even for infants, toddlers better-quality care boosts thinking, language skills

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Educators and others have argued for decades about whether the quality of child care the youngest children receive before starting school really makes a difference in how they fare once they start. At stake is not only the children's potential academic and social success, but also the extra money it costs to offer superior programs.

A first-of-its-kind new study by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers now offers strong new support for the view than quality indeed makes a difference and is worth the added expense.

Investigators at UNC-CH's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center found that even infants and toddlers in superior child care were more likely to show better intellectual and language skills and learn language faster than others in poor quality care. Such findings have not been published before.

Using a variety of well-established tests and procedures, researchers carefully followed and annually evaluated 89 black children in 27 U.S. care centers of varying quality between ages 6 months and four years. They also observed and evaluated the children's families and classrooms each year. Two-thirds of the youngsters were from low-income families.

"We found that on average, children in high-quality care scored about 12 points higher in IQ and were about two- to two-and-a-half months ahead in language development," said Dr. Margaret R. Burchinal, an investigator at the FPG Center. "Although those differences likely will diminish over time because IQ tests are more reliable at older ages in children, they are bigger than what are typically found in child-care research.

"In addition, children showed better language skills if they were in classrooms that met professional recommendations regarding ratios of children to adults," Burchinal said. "Girls showed better thinking and language skills if they were in rooms that met recommendations regarding teacher education, which meant having a degree after high school. We didn't find a difference in boys."

The negative effect of poor quality child care would be somewhat less in infants and toddlers from middle-income families, she said.

A report on the research is being published in the March-April issue of Child Development, a professional journal appearing Friday (April 27). Besides Burchinal, authors are Drs. Joanne E. Roberts, Susan A. Zeisel, Eloise Neebe and Donna Bryant, all faculty members at UNC-CH, and research assistant Rhodus Riggins Jr. Roberts, Zeisel and Burchinal also have appointments in pediatrics, nursing and psychology, respectively.

"These findings provide further evidence that parents and policy-makers should ensure that infants, toddlers and preschool age children have access to quality child care," Burchinal said. "Children are increasingly likely to be in out-of-home care when very young because their mothers have been forced to go back to work due to welfare reform. Our work shows we can make a difference in their lives by helping them acquire skills they need to enter school ready to learn.

"It's a wise investment for us as a society," she added.

The Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Health Resources and Services Administration supported the continuing study.

"The first few years of life are very important to children's learning and language development," said Dr. Claude Earl Fox, HRSA administrator. "Frequently, children from low-income families are at risk developmentally. This study confirms that there are basic ways to enhance learning in community-based child-care centers so they are more than just drop-off points."

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Note: Burchinal can be reached at 919-966-5059 or via e-mail at burchinal@unc.edu.

Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596.

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