Deborah Lowe Vandell
Deborah Lowe Vandell, chair of UCI's education department, says her study is the first to document long-term effects of child care in a large sample of children from economically diverse families. Michelle S. Kim / University Communications

Parents, take note: Your choice of preschool child care could have ramifications a full decade later.

A recent study authored by UC Irvine education professor and chair Deborah Lowe Vandell found that teens who had attended high-quality child care programs scored higher on academic and cognitive tests than their peers. The study also discovered a correlation between amount of time spent in child care – regardless of quality – and bad behaviors, such as risk-taking and impulsivity.

The findings are the latest to come out of the national Study of Early Child Care & Youth Development, the largest, longest-running and most comprehensive analysis of child care in the U.S. Participating families were recruited through hospital visits to mothers shortly after the birth of a child in 1991.

Other UCI faculty involved in the Vandell study were Margaret Burchinal and Kim Pierce of the Department of Education and Elizabeth Cauffman and K. Alison Clarke-Stewart of the Department of Psychology & Social Behavior and Results appear in the May/June issue of Child Development.

Here, Vandell discusses the enduring impact of early child care and offers advice on selecting a high-quality provider.

Q: What makes this study noteworthy?
A: It’s the first to document long-term effects of child care in a large sample of children from economically diverse families. We followed more than 1,300 children from birth to determine whether early child care quality, quantity and type could predict academic and behavioral problems at age 15. Researchers collected the results of standardized tests and obtained reports from teens, their families and their schools. What we found is that quality and quantity of early child care are indeed predictors of academic success and behavioral issues.

Q: Why are these factors significant?
A: We discovered that teens who had received higher-quality child care scored higher on measures of academic and cognitive achievement and reported fewer acting-out behaviors than their peers. At the same time, 15-year-olds who had logged more hours in child care in their first 4½ years disclosed a greater tendency toward impulsiveness and risk-taking than peers who had spent less time in child care. It’s possible that long days with large groups of kids elicits a stress response in young children. This finding could also result from family stressors associated with more child care, such as parents working long hours.

Q: How do you define a “high-quality” child care setting?
A: It’s one where caregivers are warm, loving, sensitive, respectful and responsive to children’s needs. There should also be cognitive stimulation, with teachers talking and reading to children. If a child is wandering or getting into conflicts with other children, caregivers should find ways to intervene. If children are busy and engaged, however, caregivers should not interrupt or intrude.

Q: What can parents and child care providers learn from this study?
A: I would encourage parents to quietly observe child care settings, if possible, before choosing a program. It’s a good idea to focus on a single youngster for 10 to 15 minutes and see what his or her experience is like and then watch another one over the same time span. Note the interaction between the child and the caregiver. For child care providers, I think this study underscores the importance of conversation, warmth and sensitivity. Child care experiences are significant not just in the here and now; they have long-term implications.