Effects of day care

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Effects of day care

As more and more mothers are entering or returning to the workforce, the demand for good quality crèches, nurseries and childminders is growing rapidly. This section considers the effect that day care has on the children's cognitive and social development.

Effects of day care

Important: It is very difficult to generalise the effects of day care because the quality and types vary so widely and research studies only sample a small section of this variation. Generalisation is also difficult because most of the research is carried out in the USA, which means that the findings may not be relevant in other cultures. Furthermore, individual differences in personality, social background and family relationships will also influence the effect of day care on a child.

Cognitive development refers to the growth of cognitive functions, such as thinking, reasoning and linguistic skills.

It seems that day care can have a positive influence on the child's cognitive development provided it is good quality and provides intellectual stimulation. This is particularly true for working class children (Scarr, 1998), presumably because middle class children receive the appropriate stimulation at home anyway.

Evidence for this comes from research comparing the cognitive abilities of three groups of 8 year-old children, who had received different types of care in infancy - day nurseries, childminders or remained at home. Those children who had experienced care in day nurseries had better verbal and mathematical abilities than the others. There was even a positive correlation between length of time spent in day nurseries and cognitive ability (Broberg et al., 1997).

The above findings, however, are not universal and research has shown day care to have a harmful effect on children's cognitive development. For example, a study compared the cognitive ability of children whose mothers went to work either before or after their child was one year old. The findings showed that the cognitive ability of those children who started day care earlier was lower than that of the later starters (Baydar and Brooks-Gunn, 1991).

Operation Head Start was implemented in the USA in the 1960s. It was a programme of pre-school education to encourage the cognitive development of working class children. In the short-term, the cognitive improvements were achieved but these faded in the long-term. However, the children were more likely to successfully complete high school and find employment later in life than those who had not undertaken the programme were.

It is likely that the quality of day care has the most influence on a child's development: Benefits are seen if the experience is more enriching than that which would have occurred at home. Conversely, harmful effects may occur if the quality of care is worse than home experiences (Bee, 1997).

Social development refers to the growth of the child's ability to form relationships with others and to acquire a level of independence.

Effects of day care

The effect of day care would be to separate the infant from the mother. This would result in maternal deprivation and, according to Bowlby, a harmful effect on social development. The evidence, however, suggests that the attachment between a mother and child is not damaged by day care. Using the 'Strange Situation' as a way of measuring attachment, Clarke-Stewart et al. (1994) demonstrated that there was no difference in the amount of distress shown between high-level day care children (over 30 hours per week) and low-level day care children (under 10 hours per week) when the mother departed.

Later on in life, children who have experienced day care become less aggressive and more sociable (Shea, 1981) and cope better with the new social interactions when they start attending school (Clarke-Stewart et al., 1994). However, other studies suggest that children in day care centres tend to be more aggressive (Cole and Cole, 1996).

On balance, the effect of day care on social development is seen to be positive. Children gain greater independence and become more competent at dealing with social interactions. However, this is only the case if the day care is of high quality, providing children with stimulating and well-organised experience.

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