Guest Blog Post
by Beth Meloy
Often, as a Child Care Researcher, I get questions from friends, family members, and sometimes even total strangers about the benefits of childcare for their children and how to pick a childcare arrangement. The truth is, as with most parenting decisions, there isn’t one correct answer. Luckily there is plenty of research on the topic, and we do know a couple of things that can help guide parents as they make this important decision.
What are the benefits of childcare for your child? The answer to this question largely depends on the alternatives. We know that child care, especially preschool/ pre-Kindergarten programs boost cognitive test scores, increase school readiness, and can even impact long-term outcomes (visit these sites for findings from a few high profile studies: The Carolina Abecedarian Project, High Scope Perry Preschool Study, Gormley, Phillips, Gayer, 2008. However, most of this research is derived from samples of low-income children, and when studies compare children by family income, they find that more disadvantaged children derive greater benefits from childcare and pre-K.
When you are making a decision for your own child, it is important to consider the alternatives. Childcare can be beneficial for children if it places them in a more stimulating, sensitive, and/or secure environment. That said, if your child is very young (under 3) and the alternative is staying home with you—the sensitive and instructive primary caregiver- then there is no rush to put your child into childcare.
The most important factor is the quality of the experience for your child (See Burchinal, 1999). For young children, the highest quality experience may be staying at home with a parent. For older children, it may be a preschool program. And for parents who work, cannot stay home, or want their child to enter childcare, the goal should be to find the highest quality arrangement, and the best fit for their child.
Not sure how to find a “high quality” child care arrangement or preschool program? Here are some helpful guidelines and tips:
(1) Research. Currently, twenty-three states have implemented Childcare Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS). Like the rating systems for hotels or restaurants, QRIS assesses childcare settings based on program standards. A full list of states that have these systems and their websites is available here. For example, if you live in Illinois and are considering childcare for your child you can go here and click on Licensed Child Care Centers & School-Age Programs and it will give you a 10 page pdf document listing all of the centers by county.
In addition, several states have public pre-K programs. Find out if your state has one, and how they measure-up by visiting the National Institute for Early Education Research. If your state isn’t on either of these sites, a simple google search, asking other parents, and looking at local parenting websites for advice is always a good place to start! Another great resources is Child Care Aware which provides information about locating high-quality child care, parent information, helpful tools, resources, and newsletters.
When you find a center that you are interested in, you should also ask to tour the facilities and meet the prospective caregivers. Again, trust your gut, if something feels off when the facility ought to be putting its best foot forward (to get your business), you could be picking up on something important that you don’t want to expose your child to.
(2) Child’s Age. Your child’s age may be particularly important when making the decision of where to place your child. For young children, informal arrangements, such as those with relative caregivers, nanny care, or home-based childcare may be best. Lower adult to child ratios are associated with higher quality care for infants and toddlers (NICHD ECCRN, 2007). As your child gets older, it becomes more important to help them get used to school-like settings. Childcare centers, and especially high quality preschool programs may be a good way to do this. Think about it this way—you wouldn’t throw your child in the deep end of a pool without first teaching them to swim. Kindergarten is a scary place with lots of rules and expectations. High quality center care and/or preschool programs, like swimming lessons, will help teach your child the skills they need to succeed in school (See Pre-K Now).
(3) Center Care vs Home-Based Care. Both center-based and home-based child care offer benefits and disadvantages. Home-based care may be more flexible with your work hours and are more likely to mix age groups (more sibling interaction). However, center-based childcare is usually higher quality than family day care. Childcare centers also tend to be more educationally focused… they are geared more towards learning and preparing children for school, so they are particularly beneficial for older children when compared to home-based day care options (Loeb, Fuller, Lynn, & Carrol, 2004). That said, parents can usually trust their gut on these things, not all childcare centers are better than all family care centers, and most importantly, not all child care centers are high quality (Love et al., 2003, Fuller. Kagen, Loeb, & Chang, 2004).
(4) Stability. Find a childcare arrangement that works for you and stick with it. From the childcare research we know that stability matters! Stability in childcare can be defined in terms of stability of the childcare center (the physical building) and stability of the caregiver. Ideally, the arrangement you choose for your child will be stable for both. Each arrangement has different expectations (rules and routines) and entering a new arrangement involves navigating new relationships (with the caregiver and with peers). Switching up the game too often will be stressful for your child. When you are choosing a childcare program, it is important to find a good fit, so that you are less likely to move your child mid-year. Consider the center’s policies. If your child will age out of the center after a few months, or even a year, you may want to look for a different arrangement. Read all about childcare stability and its potential impacts on your child’s development by going here.
So, what is the take home message? Choosing childcare is all about considering the alternatives, finding a high-quality program—and one that is a good fit for you—and sticking with it. There are tools out there to help guide your decision, but in the end it’s all about knowing yourself, knowing your child, and going with your gut.
About the Author:
Beth Meloy is a fifth-year student in the Dual MPP/PhD program working with Deborah Phillips at Georgetown University. Her research interests include the effects of early education (child care) programs on subsequent cognitive development (particularly for minority and low-income children), as well as the effect
of involvement with the child welfare system on child development. Her current research focuses on the effects of type, stability, and quality of childcare on young children with special needs and young children in foster care. She received her BA in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2005 and her MPP from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute in 2008. Email Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org