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Child Care and Children's Development

THE ISSUE IN BRIEF

Research presented at the first two workshops on child care for low-income families (Phillips, 1995) points to a relatively small supply of care for infants and school-age children, for children with disabilities and special health care needs, and for parents with unconventional or shifting work hours. These scarcities exacerbate other barriers that low-income families experience in matching the type of care used with the features of care that best meet their needs.

Moreover, the quality of care available to low-income families is highly variable; quality matters because, as numerous observational studies have demonstrated, variation in quality has discernible effects on children's development, perhaps more so for low-income children. A sizable minority of the care arrangements available to low-income children falls into a range of quality that some conclude may compromise development, and there is a very limited supply of arrangements at the high end of the quality spectrum. Children from low-income families who are in home-based child care—particularly those that are exclusively dependent on maternal income—are more likely to be enrolled in poorer-quality arrangements than are their higher-income peers. Inequities in access to quality do not appear to characterize center-based care, in part because some low-income families have access to part-day, center-based early intervention programs



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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop 2 Child Care and Children's Development THE ISSUE IN BRIEF Research presented at the first two workshops on child care for low-income families (Phillips, 1995) points to a relatively small supply of care for infants and school-age children, for children with disabilities and special health care needs, and for parents with unconventional or shifting work hours. These scarcities exacerbate other barriers that low-income families experience in matching the type of care used with the features of care that best meet their needs. Moreover, the quality of care available to low-income families is highly variable; quality matters because, as numerous observational studies have demonstrated, variation in quality has discernible effects on children's development, perhaps more so for low-income children. A sizable minority of the care arrangements available to low-income children falls into a range of quality that some conclude may compromise development, and there is a very limited supply of arrangements at the high end of the quality spectrum. Children from low-income families who are in home-based child care—particularly those that are exclusively dependent on maternal income—are more likely to be enrolled in poorer-quality arrangements than are their higher-income peers. Inequities in access to quality do not appear to characterize center-based care, in part because some low-income families have access to part-day, center-based early intervention programs

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop that emphasize the delivery of comprehensive, high-quality care (e.g., Head Start) (Phillips, 1995). Unstable child care affects all families, but poor and low-income families are unduly affected by irregular and shifting work schedules, marginal employment, and in some cases, the financial necessity of relying on fragile and therefore unstable child care arrangements. Instability of care is of special concern for infants, a third of whom experience at least three different arrangements in the first year of life (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 1995). This constellation of issues regarding equity of access to stable, beneficial child care is an especially promising area for further research given its significant implications for the policy choices that must inevitably be made between using subsidies to expand low-income families' access to care or to upgrade the quality and reliability of the care that already exists. Are there cumulative effects, over time, that derive from the modest but pervasive effects of poor-quality care on children's social, language, health, and cognitive development? What are the ripple or contagion effects associated with poor-quality child care arrangements when, for example, the behavioral problems of one or two children exposed to these environments affect the dynamics of an entire classroom? What is known about how children's home and child care environments interact to affect development, particularly at the extremes of quality? And what are the effects of variation in the quality and continuity of care on the quality and consistency of childrearing that parents are able to provide? DIRECTIONS FOR RESEARCH Participants in the third workshop, in their discussions on the effect of child care on children's development, addressed four general areas: (1) the role of child care as an intervention in the lives of low-income children; (2) the importance of capturing the dynamics of children 's child care experiences; (3) expansion of the range of effects of child care examined in research beyond outcomes for individual children to include families, communities, peer groups, schools, and others (effects on families' work are addressed in Chapter 3); and (4) development of a broader conception of child care quality that is relevant to current policy issues. Child Care as Intervention Several participants noted that child care is often a focus of research on low-income families because it is considered an avenue of intervention

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop in the lives of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This viewpoint highlights the importance of narrowing the traditional divide between the research on early intervention programs (those that are specifically designed to compensate for perceived environmental deficiencies, that typically operate on part-day schedules, and that provide comprehensive services) and the research on full-day child care that, until recently, has tended to be seen as not providing the same potential for enrichment. High-quality child care can provide children from disadvantaged backgrounds with developmental screening, health assessments, and access to educational materials; poor-quality care may compound the potentially detrimental influences of other aspects of disadvantaged environments. The participants cautioned that an accurate portrayal of child care requires that the influence of child care be examined in conjunction with other influences on children's lives, such as their home environments, neighborhoods, and access to health care and other services; most research on child care has examined the influence of child care apart from other influences on children's lives. The major challenge to future research on these questions, according to workshop participants, is that of measuring the effects of child care not in isolation, but in conjunction with other important influences on children's health and development. In fact, one of the most basic challenges to existing research that was raised at the workshop was the question of the relative influence of child care—in the broader scheme of all influences on children's lives—in affecting such larger issues as child poverty, children's long-term development, and family well-being. Participants suggested that future research consider what short-and long-term effects child care has on the lives of low-income children and how much of an intervention is needed to make a difference. They also noted the importance of addressing the value-added effect on low-income children of components of some child care arrangements, such as developmental screening, health assessments, and access to educational materials. Several participants suggested that studies should ask how child care and home environments interact and how they modify, potentiate, or compensate for each others' influence (what happens, for example, when children take part in high-quality child care for part of the day, then spend the remainder of their time in unsupportive home or child care environments?).

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop Capturing the Dynamics of Child Care Experiences for Children Child care is not a single intervention in children's lives. Rather, children move in and out of different child care arrangements and experience multiple arrangements simultaneously over the course of their early childhood years. Growing evidence that children experience more than one child care arrangement in their childhood years poses challenges to the typical approach of assessing one arrangement at one point in time and assuming that this adequately captures the effects of child care on development. One workshop participant noted the need for research to identify the variety of naturally occurring child care configurations, such as the link between part-day Head Start and the child care used for the rest of the day, or the blends of relative and family day care that many families rely on, in order to better capture the realities of families' child care arrangements. Another participant cited the need for studies that address the processes that underlie parents ' child care choices over the course of time that they rely on nonparental care. Other participants pointed to the importance of examining the sequencing of child care arrangements across the early childhood and school-age years—identifying mixes of arrangements and the times and places that transitions occurred—rather than looking at single settings experienced by children at isolated points in time. Expansion of Child Care Effects As more and younger children spend increasing amounts of time with caregivers who are not family members and the very role of child care changes from one of providing supplemental experiences to one of providing basic socialization, researchers will need to reconsider the narrow range of outcomes that are typically included in child care studies. Moving beyond individual effects on children, participants suggested, studies will have to consider different units of analysis, such as the family (including siblings), the community, peer groups, and the school, among other variables. Researchers could look at how child care choices are affected by family structure and, in turn, affect the childrearing dynamics within families. At the community level, little is known about whether and how various characteristics of the child care that is available to low-income families affects such community characteristics as neighborhood safety, rates of

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop parental employment, the local epidemiology of child health, aggregate school readiness, special education enrollment, and school dropout rates. Furthermore, several speakers noted, as child care assumes a more pervasive role in America's increasingly culturally diverse society, researchers will need to expand the array of outcomes measured to take into consideration such issues as child care providers' efforts to preserve families' cultures, to teach English as a second language, and to adopt multicultural approaches. Useful assessments of child care environments will increasingly need to consider the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic mix of the children in care, and the corresponding backgrounds of their child care providers (see Phillips and Crowell, 1994, for further discussion of these issues). A fundamental challenge in this area concerns the basic ingredients of quality care; what is developmentally beneficial for one child may not be so beneficial for another. The Policy Relevance of Quality Several participants suggested the need to broaden the conception of quality in the next generation of studies of child care to include more policy-relevant considerations. They noted the need to rectify the relative inattention paid to informal child care arrangements, to consider more policy-relevant indices (e.g., reimbursement rates relative to cost of care, access to public and private subsidies, participation in state and local quality improvement initiatives), and to consider aspects of the surrounding community that provide an infrastructure for high-quality care. Especially in the current climate of financial cutbacks, some suggested that it would be wise to conduct cost-benefit analyses similar to those that have applied to early intervention programs (e.g., Barnett, 1985) and to examine the returns to the community of investing in child care. In the context of discussing quality, one participant proposed that the main issue was one of identifying thresholds of quality—that is, those levels below which children's development is compromised and above which developmental gains occur, as well as thresholds of quality beyond which there are diminishing returns of investments in quality. This approach to assessing the developmental effects of variations in quality is distinct from the correlational analyses that dominate the research literature; it would shift the general debate from one of “more is better” to one of “how much is good enough,” which participants cited as a more pertinent question in today's policy context. The speaker also suggested that research be con

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop ducted in coordination with child care resource and referral agencies that maintain sizable databases on the local supply and characteristics of child care, as well as in conjunction with monitoring activities that are carried out by regulatory agencies and also involve data collection. Future research should assess the critical dimensions of quality for informal child care arrangements and determine what strategies —short of regulation and accreditation—improve the quality of informal care, participants suggested. Researchers could study how quality is attained in the informal market and via whom—regulators, consumers, policy makers—in order to identify the most effective mechanisms for improving quality, such as training, regulation, consumer education, accreditation, and improved provider compensation. Lessons have been learned about successful means of improving quality of care in more formal child care settings, such as child care centers and regulated family day care homes (see, for example, Smith et al., 1995; Larner, 1994); the next step involves extending this work to informal arrangements and determining what conditions are necessary to sustain the positive effects of quality improvement efforts, several participants noted.