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081: How can I decide which daycare/preschool is right for my child?
7th January 2019 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 00:31:11

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I regularly receive questions from listeners asking me whether they should put their child in daycare or preschool and my response has typically been that there isn’t a lot of research on the benefits and drawbacks for middle class children on whether or not the child goes to daycare/preschool, and that is still true.  I’ve done research on my listeners and while parents of all types listen to the show, the majority of you are fortunate enough to not be highly economically challenged. So in this episode we’ll talk about why preschool is considered to be such a good thing for children of lower-income families, and also what research is available on the effects – both positive and negative – of daycare and preschool on children of middle- and upper-income families. You’ll also hear me mention in the show that it’s really, really difficult even for researchers to accurately measure the quality of a daycare/preschool setting because you can’t just get data on child:teacher ratios and teacher qualifications to do this.  You have to actually visit the setting and understand the experience of the children to do this – but what do you look for?  And what questions do you ask?  In the show I mention a list of questions you can ask the staff and things you can look out for that Evelyn Nichols, M.Ed of Mighty Bambinis and I put together – you can download this by entering your name and email address below. Let me know (in the comments below) if you have follow-up questions as you think through this decision for your family!  
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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today we’re covering an altruistic episode – one that I don’t need, because we already made this decision a long time ago – and that’s on how to decide whether you should put your child in daycare or preschool. I regularly get questions from listeners on this and my response has typically been that there isn’t a lot of research on the benefits and drawbacks for middle class children on whether or not the child goes to daycare, and that is still true. I’m going to be really up-front here and say that the vast majority of the literature related to childcare is conducted from the perspective of looking at methods to close the enormous deficit in skills – particularly language skills – with which poor children, and particularly poor Black children, enter kindergarten. Yet very, very few of these researchers ever think to question the system in which this research, and the poor children themselves, reside – these children only have a “deficit” of skills because the school system isn’t set up to value and develop the skills these children DO bring. So the vast majority of this research says something along the lines of “poor children have X, Y, and Z skills when they enter daycare, and daycare has success at closing the X gap between poor children and middle class children but not Y and Z.” Now I’ve done research on the listeners of this show and while there are certainly parents of all kinds listening, I think my listeners – and certainly the people who email me asking about daycare – are mostly fortunate enough to not be highly economically challenged. Many of them have been stay-at-home parents for several years and are trying to decide whether the child would benefit more from continuing to stay home or go to daycare, rather than making this decision from the perspective of “our family needs another income so my child is going to have to go to daycare,” although there are a few who worry about whether they are somehow being selfish for wanting to work and sending their child to daycare. So we should acknowledge that the concerns of parents who are asking me about daycare and preschool for their children are pretty different from those of most of the researchers who look at this question. But there are some researchers who have taken a different perspective, or who have looked at the data in such a way that allows us to understand more about how this decision affects our children, so today we’re going to look at the what the scientific literature says on this topic. We’ll look at whatever research is available in the pre-kindergarten years, so throughout this episode when I say “daycare” I mean care for infants, and when I say “preschool” I mean care for toddlers and up, and I’ll let you know the age group that the studies refer to. And I have a couple of other treats lined up for you as well. If you’re in the U.S. and possibly some other Western countries as well you may be gearing up for preschool touring season so my friend Evelyn Nichols, who used to run the RIE- and Reggio Emillia-inspired daycare Mighty Bambinis, has written a blog post for us drawing on her expertise running a daycare as well as her Masters in Education to help us understand what questions we should REALLY be asking on a preschool tour to get a feel for whether a preschool is going to be a good fit for your family. That post will be out next week, but if you want to get a headstart (or you have tours coming up this week!) head on over to to download a really cool printable list of questions to take on a preschool tour with space for you to jot down your answers. That printable is available right now, and if you’ve subscribed to the show through my website then you actually received it in the same email I used to let you know that this show is live. If you’re not subscribed through my site then head on over to to download the printable to take with you on your tours, because it’s going to let you know the kinds of questions to ask and things to look out for that will help you to judge the real quality of a care setting, which the literature shows is not as easy to judge as you might imagine. OK, now into the research. I want to lay just a little bit of groundwork with research on the effects of daycare in infancy, even though that isn’t our focus. A lot of the studies looking at daycare and preschool takes advantage of policy changes related to parental leave in European countries, and looks at shift in children’s abilities before and after the change. And as a little methodological side note, these studies are done in a pretty different way from the usual ones we see on the show where a researcher takes 50 children into a lab and asks 25 of them to do one kind of task and the other 25 just play a game and the researchers ask both groups to do a different task and see which children can do it better. For many of these studies the researcher calls up, for example, Statistics Norway and says “could you please send me the data you have on the percentage of mothers that worked the year before and after the maternity leave increase, as well as the test scores for all five-year-old students in the country in those years, and also the final graduation rates and test scores for those children when they left school?” and Statistics Norway says “certainly Madam; we’ll send it to you within a couple of weeks” and the researcher can just sit in their office and run some statistical analysis on the data. So this data can give us some incredibly powerful country-level information that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive to gather by an individual researcher. But we should also acknowledge that this data isn’t able to tell us much about the individual-level processes going on. A child might score poorly or well on a standardized test for a host of reasons not related to the amount of time they spent in daycare or preschool, so while these studies can tell us about how children *on average* respond to being in daycare or preschool, they don’t tell us much about how YOUR CHILD will respond to this. So one study on infant care compared child outcomes after an increase in mandatory paid maternity leave from 0 to 4 months, and mandatory unpaid maternity leave from 3 to 12 months in Norway in 1977. These children were 29 in 2006 when the study happened, and the study found that 2.7% more of the children completed high school after the reform, going up to 5.2% for those whose mothers have less than 10 years of education. There wasn’t really any high quality childcare available in Norway for under two-year-olds at the time, so the alternative was grandparents or other informal care, so this isn’t really a comparison between the kinds of care that most of my listeners are considering. An American study found that children whose mothers worked during the first year had lower scores on a test of cognitive ability and verbal intelligence, but this was potentially offset by a positive effect when the mother works in the second and subsequent years. The negative first year effect wasn’t impacted by the increased maternal income that came with the mother’s work, although this did appear to play an important role in producing the positive effect in the second and later years, but this study didn’t look at the kind of care the mother was using so we don’t know if it was center-based or informal (which is a pretty important distinction, as informal care is regularly associated with detrimental outcomes for children), and we also don’t know anything whether these differences between the two groups persisted as the children got older. Another American study aimed to control for factors that might have differed between families using daycare and families not using daycare - so things like the fact that women who return to work earlier may provide a less nurturing or stimulating home environment and be less likely to breast feed, and the type of care used. These researchers found adverse effects of maternal employment on cognitive outcomes for non-Hispanic White children, but not for African American or Hispanic children, that persisted until age 7 or 8, although the effects were not large and were worse among lower-income families. The child’s home environment was an important factor predicting cognitive ability, breastfeeding didn’t seem to impact the results one way or the other, with informal care provided by non-relatives again producing the worst outcomes. One particularly pessimistic study said that looking at young children’s verbal ability isn’t a very good way of assessing the impacts of maternal work because we should actually be looking farther ahead, and if we do that, we see that mothers’ early work is linked with worse performance on reading and math tests at age 5 and 6 – about the same decline in performance as if the mother had 2-3 years less education than she really does. This is one of the few studies that looked at part-time employment and found a reduced but still negative effect for part time work, but the effects of the type of daycare used were highly mixed. It also disaggregated the results by economic status, noting that “children with working parents come from relatively advantaged backgrounds or possess attributes associated with rapid cognitive development,” which is a bit opaque to me but I think what they’re saying is that White middle class parents are “good parents,” and when these parents spend less time with their children because they’re working, the children experience adverse outcomes. Once again, however, what we’re really measuring is the ability of all children to do well on the types of tests that predict academic ability in a system that is really designed for White children to succeed in. So that’s what some of the research on working while the child is very young has found – in general, it seems to be more negative when low quality care is used and the parent is “advantaged,” and may be somewhat offset if the mother continues to work in subsequent years. But what happens if the mother remains at home for the child’s first and maybe second year, and then returns to work after that? The research on this front is decidedly mixed, so we’re going to spend some time teasing it out. Once again, there is a large body of work demonstrating the “benefits” of high quality care for the population of welfare recipients, largely because the skills that these families develop in their children are not ones that are valued in school so formal daycare environments get these children used to functioning in an environment where you need to sit still and listen to the teacher, which helps the children once they get to school since sitting still and listening to the teacher is a valued skill in that environment. In other words, White middle class parents do just fine at preparing their children to succeed in a school that espouses White middle class values, a finding that is echoed in several other studies as well. A couple of studies looked at Norway’s 1998 Care-for-Cash reform, which provided cash to families with young children who did not use formal child care facilities and instead took care of their infant or toddler themselves, used grandparent care, or used other informal care. This program apparently reduced the score on a reading test by about 1.24% among mothers with low levels of education. There’s a small increase in the scores driven by increased income from the mothers going back to work, but this is offset by the use of low quality informal child care and encourages the mother to have more children who will also have lower scores. But on the flip-side of that, another study found that older children whose mothers had an infant or toddler who made them eligible for the Cash-for-Care program actually had a better-than-expected 10th grade GPA, possibly because the school day in Norway is short and students get a lot of homework assignments but after-school programs are of low quality, so having the mother available to help could have supported the older child’s educational achievement. But this was just a tentative hypothesis, as the study didn’t seem to fully explore the link between maternal education or family income and the child’s outcomes. It’s possible that White middle class mothers might have provided more effective homework support for children than lower income mothers from other backgrounds. Now I want to take a little detour here because I’ve mentioned the terms “high quality” and “low quality” a few times now, and you’re probably wondering “well, what IS a high quality preschool?”. It seems as though that should be a relatively easy thing to define, but it turns out that it’s actually not. Some researchers in the U.K. looked at the indicators that the U.K. Schools Inspectorate, which is called OFSTED, uses measure quality – things like staff qualifications, the staff-child ratio and group size, which roll up into a score of Outstanding, Satisfactory, or Inadequate. It turns out that attending preschool that is rated Outstanding is associated with moving up less than one level on just one of the 13 scales that make up the Foundation Stage of primary education at age 5, and children who attend Inadequate preschools do not always have the lowest readiness scores. It seems as though the type of administrative data that is usually used to measure quality is easy to collect and conveniently objective, but the actual experiences of the children in the setting, which is also called “process quality,” can only be measured by actually observing children in the setting – which makes this data very time-consuming and expensive to collect (which is why nobody does it on a large scale). Other studies have found positive but weak relationships between the average qualification level of staff and process quality; specifically for social skills like being cooperative, sociable, and less worried and upset. The same researchers found that helping some of the nursery staff to achieve a qualification leads to a significant improvement in process quality, but studies in the U.S. have found few associations between qualifications and quality at all. The blog post that I’m working on with Evelyn Nichols that will be published next week will help you to ask questions when you go on preschool tours that will help you to get at some of these process quality metrics, and the printable is something you can actually take with you so you remember what questions to ask and have space to jot down some short answers. I should acknowledge that pretty much all of the research that I’ve found on quality is related to quality in formal daycare centers, rather than related to in-home nannies or nanny shares (which are a pretty common way to care for young children among the middle class in the U.S.), or in informal settings like the grandmother down the street who takes in the neighborhood children for a pretty cheap rate and probably does not have any formal qualifications. Daycare centers and preschools are much easier to inspect and assign numerical scores to, so that’s where the research seems to focus. OK, so back on to the implications of being in preschool for children. A study by Dr. Christina Felfe in Germany published in 2012 looked at changes in parenting practices after the expansion of parental leave from 3 months in 1979 to 36 months of job protected leave and 24 months of that being paid leave (which probably makes American parents want to cry). In contrast with previous studies conducted in Quebec, which found that the introduction of a childcare subsidy led to more hostile parenting styles and thus to a deterioration of child well-being, this one in Germany found that the quality of maternal care does not deteriorate as a result of sending the child to center-based care. The paper notes that this could be because the kinds of activities that get crowded out in the mother-child interactions are things like running errands and watching TV, and I did want to linger on this point for just a minute. Firstly, I think that running errands actually has the potential to be a very rich interaction for children; my 4.5YO daughter Carys loves to come grocery shopping with me and we spend quite a bit of time talking about the things we’re buying and now she’s receiving pocket money I imagine the cost of items is going to become more of a discussion point. She helps me to unpack the bags when we get home, which Dr. Roberta Golinkoff cites as a perfect example of an activity that supports the development of skills related to cooperation. It also reminded me of things I’ve read in the homeschooling literature discussing how parents whose children are in school tend to run errands while their children are at school, but it turns out that running errands is a lot of what life is about. As a result, many children get to age 16 or 18 never having been in a bank or a post office or having any idea how to interact with the staff of those institutions. There’s a real tendency in modern parenting to get these kinds of errands out of the way so you can do the “fun stuff” with your children, but when you’re a stay-at-home parent the children are around all the time so these errands become a natural part of their lives and they see what it means to be an adult rather than being apart from adults in school and learning how to be an adult there. And the other part of this that caught my attention was the observation that low-quality solo time in front of the TV is something the child is less likely to spend time doing if they attend preschool, which reminded me of an article the New York Times ran just a couple of days ago discussing the pressures of modern parenting. It talked about how the American Academy of Pediatrics is contributing to this trend by saying that if parents do allow their children to watch TV, the...





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