Womens Health

High-Quality Child Care Before Age 5 Makes for Smarter, Better-Behaved Teens

| by National Womens Law Center

by Karen Schulman, Senior Policy Analyst, 
National Women's Law Center

The latest results from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which has been following 1,364 children since their birth in 1991, show the long-term positive impact of high-quality child care. The study found that at age 15 those who had been in high-quality quality care before age 4 ½ were performing better on academic and cognitive assessments and were less likely to display problem behavior. 

The differences in teens' academic performance and behavior associated with the quality of care they had in their preschool years were relatively small. And the influence of parents and other family members and other factors outweighed the impact of child care. Yet the persistence of those differences related to child care is striking, and children and youth need every extra boost they can get.

The study also found that teens who had spent more time in child care were slightly more likely to display impulsive and risk-taking behavior. This only reinforces the importance of high-quality child care, particularly for children who are in care for long hours.

It's no longer a question of whether children will be in child care—nearly nine out of ten children in the study spent some time in the care of someone other than their mother by the time they were 4 ½. The only question is what type of care it will be and whether it will provide the high-quality environment that encourages children’s successful development. Unfortunately, high-quality child care is difficult to find, so it is essential to invest more in improving the quality of care. 

Efforts to improve the quality of care were bolstered by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided $2 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, including $255 million that was set aside for quality. States have used that quality set-aside for systems to rate the quality of child care providers and help providers improve those ratings, professional development opportunities for child care providers, grants to providers to buy educational materials and equipment, linkages with health care and other services, and specific efforts to improve infant and toddler care. Yet some states are cutting their quality initiatives as a result of state budget shortfalls, and much work remains to be done to ensure that children are in the type of care that improves their chances for success in the long run.