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Better Day Care, Smarter Kids?

Scientists have long known that poverty can inhibit a child's intellectual development. But now researchers have found a possible equalizer -- a good day care environment.

High-quality day care for the youngest poor kids may be enough to offset negative home environments and provide them the foundation for good school skills, at least up to the fifth grade, according to a new study.

Led by Eric Dearing, an associate professor at Boston College's Lynch School of Education, the research team found significant benefits from higher quality day care in the first five years of life.

Impoverished families may be too overwhelmed by the stresses of survival to devote time or resources to help their children achieve later academic success, but Dearing believes quality child care can fill the gap.

"Even minimal exposure to higher-quality child care at times was enough to offset the deprivation often encountered when growing up poor," said Dearing, whose team analyzed data on more than 1,300 children, many of them living at or below the federal poverty line, in 10 regions around the United States. The data, part of a long-term federal study that began in 1991, included half-day observations of children in child care.

Dearing defined "higher quality" day care as settings that offer above-average personal attention, intellectual stimulation and emotional comfort to babies and toddlers. Higher quality day care, he said, should not be confused with the elite services found in affluent communities. Rather, it can be as informal as a grandmother's house or as organized as an established neighborhood day care center.

The findings appear in the September/October issue of Child Development.

The study team, including researchers from Samford University in Alabama and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found that the benefits of higher quality day care applied to most children, from poor to middle-class. And the more exposure to good day care, the bigger the impact, Dearing added. Most of the day care facilities in the study had no admissions standards, and there was no bias toward children with higher IQs, he noted.

The effect was seen in children from families with close to middle-class incomes, and got more significant as family income levels dropped, the researchers said. This meant that even a brief experience with higher-quality early child care was associated with significantly better math achievement by the time the child reached middle school.

As little as one or two years of day care corresponded to a 5 percent increase in math scores for children from lower-class families (200 percent of the poverty line), and this increment grew as the family income level went down.

"The greatest estimated benefits of higher-quality care were evident for the poorest children, but even for children close to 200 percent of the poverty line the effects of higher-quality child care compared favorably with those for (a rise in) family income," according to the study. "For these children, in fact, just one or two episodes in higher-quality child care produced estimated impacts on achievement similar in size to achievement gains that would be expected if a family's income increased enough to move them from low-income to approximately middle class."

Impoverished mothers and fathers, as much as more affluent parents, need places to care for their kids while they work or go to school. These families are often forced to rely on substandard day care because they have few choices, Dearing said.

The study did not make specific recommendations to improve day care in poor communities, but Dearing suggested the need to better educate parents on how to obtain quality day care and provide more public funding of day care. For those kids without access to higher quality care, later intervention in public schools may be effective, too.

Marta Flaum, a psychologist from Chappaqua, N.Y., agreed with Dearing's conclusions.

"It certainly makes sense, given what we know about the critical role that early experiences play in child development," said Flaum. "The first few years of life are absolutely critical for stimulating language, reasoning and problem solving, and encouraging a curiosity and love of learning. There are windows of opportunity for mastering such important benchmarks, and if skills are not acquired during these periods, learning is much slower and there is a risk of permanent developmental lag."

In related news, another study has found that children who were breast-fed as infants have superior cognitive skills compared with kids who were fed formula. Scientists believe that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an essential fatty acid found in mother's milk, is responsible for the improved cognitive skills.

When DHA was added to infant formula, babies showed greater cognitive improvement than the babies fed on regular formula.

"Currently, there is no clear consensus on whether infant formula should be supplemented with DHA," lead author James R. Drover, assistant professor of psychology at Memorial University in Canada, said in a news release. "However, our results clearly suggest that feeding infants formula supplemented with high concentrations of DHA provides beneficial effects on cognitive development."

2 Responses »

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article. I found it absolutely fascinating because I am part owner of three day cares all of which are located in the inner city. Most of our families are publicly assisted families and we do whatever we can to improve the quality of our day cares and positively impact the lives of children. Like you said above there are windows of opportunity for kids to learn certain skill sets and it is extremely important that they are in an environment where they are challenged to grow and learn. I think there definitely needs to be more funding for families living in poverty so the children can have a good place to learn and parents can go out and get a job or an education to better their lives.

    • I agree I am an owner as well and funding is needed for slots through title 20! Not through any other agency. Headstart is trying to do the job and looks very good on paper but .... These children need to be tested upon entering into Kindergareten. I did a summer VPK class many of my children came from headstart. Which are of the lowest income grop. These children did not have the skill set they should have.I had to call in outside therapy's to get the assistance needed to have these children school ready. I think if you give these parent's choice they will make the right the right choice.