Clayton Early Learning

In the News: Long Term Negative Effects of Low Quality Care?

Mary Klute

A few weeks ago, several friends, colleagues, and family members sent me a link to a news story they thought I’d surely be interested in.  The title of the article, “Study finds that effects of low-quality child care last into adolescence,” piqued my interest as both a researcher in the field of early childhood education and as a parent who has used full-time childcare for two children.  I read the news article and saw that it described research published in Child Development, a journal to which I subscribe.  About halfway through reading it, I started to wonder if I had the right journal article, because while this research was about long-term effects of child care, the main story wasn’t really about lasting effects of low-quality child care.  I recognize that not everyone has the background knowledge to wade through 8 pages describing the complicated statistical techniques used to analyze the data.  But, since I do, I thought I’d share my sense of the take home messages of this research and why I concluded the story is not about low-quality child care, but actually about high-quality child care.

The researchers have been following 1364 children and families since children were 2 weeks old.  This report describes results from when children were 15, about a decade after they left child care.  As any parent of an adolescent can attest, a lot can change in 10 years.  You might expect that all the things that happen between preschool and high school—peer groups, quality of the schools, etc.—would change the playing field so much over time that whatever impact that child care had would just fade away.  But in fact, the researchers did find associations between early care experiences and adolescents’ cognitive and academic achievement as well as their behavior problems at age 15.  They looked at several features of child care including the quality of the child care (measured with a tool that was focused heavily on teacher-child interactions, similar to a tool called the CLASS, which we’ve discussed previously), and the number of hours children spent in care.  The pattern of findings was very similar to what they found when children were younger:

  • Having been in a higher quality early child care is associated with higher cognitive and academic achievement at age 15.
  • Having been in more hours of child care was associated with greater levels of behavior problems at age 15 (i.e., more risky behavior and being more impulsive).

These are not strong associations.  That is, this research does not suggest that child care has the power to turn children into geniuses or delinquents.  Previous research from this study clearly indicated that what parents do is a more powerful predictor of children’s outcomes than what happens at child care.  But, what is interesting is that these effects are enduring; the magnitudes of the associations at age 15 are similar in size to the same associations at age 4.5, when children were just leaving their child care arrangements and heading to kindergarten.  So the take home message here is that the effects of child care are small but enduring.

While many of the results of the analyses of child outcomes at age 15 were similar to what researchers found when children were younger, some results were different than at previous ages.  One of these is critical to my opinion that results of this study aren’t really about low-quality child care.  The researchers found what is called a non-linear association between quality of child care and children’s cognitive and academic achievement at age 15.  “Non-linear association” is just a fancy way of saying that this association isn’t a simple “lower quality=worse outcomes” scenario.  Instead, like many things in life, it is more complicated.  What the researchers found was that for low and very low quality programs, there really wasn’t much of an association at all between quality and child outcomes.  It was only when programs were of higher quality, that researchers started to see the relationship where more quality was associated with more positive cognitive and academic achievement.  So poor quality care didn’t do long-lasting harm to children, but it didn’t help them either, at least not systematically across the group of children studied.  In contrast, as long as child care was of moderately good quality, there was a benefit to children.   As a result, the real story here is about the long-term potential of high-quality child care, not about the long-lasting negative impacts of low-quality care.

So what is a well-meaning consumer of the news to do?  When you hear or read an interesting tidbit in the news, how can you get the “real” story or at least get enough information to form your own opinion?  Do you have to take years and years of advanced statistics classes before you can understand research articles?  I’d argue that in most cases, no.  The most intimidating part of a research article is indeed the results section where all those statistics are explained.  But even if you aren’t familiar with the statistics, you can get most of “the story” from the rest of the article.  If I’ve inspired you to start now, you can access the article directly or read a press release summarizing the article from the Society for Research in Child Development.  And if you see a story related to Early Childhood Education in the news that you’d like us to write about, definitely let us know!

Mary Klute

About Mary Klute

Mary Klute has directed several multi-site research and evaluation studies, including evaluations of the Institute's two Early Reading First grants, the Denver Preschool Program evaluation project, and a validation study of a school readiness assessment called the ESTART. She is an active member of the Early Head Start research consortium and the Bounce Learning Network. Mary's fields of interest and expertise include the examination of preventive interventions to support children's social and emotional development and school readiness, with a focus on children living in poverty, methodology, and statistics. Much of her current work also focuses on how early childhood education programs can use data for quality improvement. Mary received her Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies in 1998 from Pennsylvania State University.
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  1. Mary, this article is very intersting and written at a level even people who don’t have years and years of statistics can follow! Thank you. Just curious what is the name of the interaction tool the study used?

  2. Thanks Debbie. The instrument is called the Observation Record of the Caregiving Environment (ORCE). It was developed especially for the NICHD SECC Study. You can find more information about it on the NICHD SECC project website (particularly in this Word Document on page 121:, and here:

  3. Very encouraging! We really need this kind of evidence to fight the perception out there that effects of early intervention simply wash away. I think it also helps inspire teachers about what kind of long-term impact they can have on others’ lives.

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