Photo by Mike Rodman
Easy as ABC: Quality childcare matters for low-income families
For children in low to middle income families (to the left of the vertical dotted line), language scores were significantly higher among those in higher quality childcare (blue), compared to those in lower quality childcare (orange). In other words, among children who were living at or near poverty levels, those receiving higher quality childcare scored closer to national averages for language (score: 100) for children their age.
The differences in scores associated with quality of care were less marked for children in higher income families (to the right of the vertical dotted line); when children came from higher income families, it made less of a difference whether or not their early education setting was of better-than-average quality.
The researchers found a similar pattern for children’s school readiness scores. Here, the test is designed so that 10 is the average score for three-year-olds, in areas such as letter knowledge, numbers and counting, and understanding of size. For children in low to middle income families (left of the vertical dotted line), experiences in higher quality childcare (blue) were associated with significantly greater school readiness skills. Again, the differences associated with quality of care were much smaller among children from higher-income families.
The study leads to a key insight about the relationship between family resources, access to high quality childcare, and children’s start in life. In this economically and geographically diverse sample of young children, income-related differences in language and other skills are already evident by the time children are three years old. On the other hand, for families with few economic resources, higher quality childcare can start to level the playing field.
One limitation of this study is that it is very difficult to account for all of the important variables. The researchers did account for important demographics, like the sex of the child, mother’s education level, and the child’s race. However, it could be that parents who placed their children in higher quality care already had greater awareness of what to look for in a childcare setting, and were more motivated to seek out a stimulating and responsive setting for their child. That might explain why their children’s scores were higher than those who were experiencing lower quality child care environments. Nonetheless, the scope of this study, and its inclusion of diverse families from multiple regions of the U.S., adds to the validity of the findings. The report highlights the potential benefits of policies and practices that make higher quality childcare available to more families, particularly low income families – whether through childcare subsidies or vouchers, or changes in the regulation of childcare programs’ quality standards.
1 McCartney, K., Dearing, E., Taylor, B.A., & Bub, K.L. (2007). Quality child care supports the achievement of low-income children: Direct and indirect pathways through caregiving and the home environment. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28 (5-6), 411-426.
2 Quality of care was assessed during two half-day visits to the child's primary child care setting at 6, 15, 24, and 36 months. Observers rated several aspects of caregivers’ behavior, including their sensitivity to the child's non-distress expressions, stimulation of cognitive development, emotional expression directed towards the child, and intrusiveness in the child’s activity.