By Gina Roberts-Grey
The decision to enroll your child in day care is one that requires deliberate thought, sparks internal debates, and often triggers repeated waves of parental guilt. Whether needing to utilize full or part time day care, parents grapple with unimaginable self-imposed guilt, and a myriad of questions and concerns. Most likely, well wishing family members and friends try valiantly to ease your guilt, offering encouraging words of support such as “He has a good time playing with his friends at day care,” and “You will not miss out on important milestones just because she’s in day care.”
Now, in a move that casts the National Institutes of Health in the dual roles of ‘Good Cop’ and ‘Bad Cop’ a recent study has parents of children who attend day care, and nearly everyone else in the country, asking “what are the long term effects of day care?”
The study, dubbed by the NIH as “the largest, longest-running and most comprehensive study of child care in the United States,” tracked 1,364 children since birth; with the latest results following those children through sixth grade. Researchers claim the longer children had spent in day care centers before kindergarten, the more likely their sixth-grade teachers were to report “problem behavior,” such as getting into fights, arguing or being disobedient.
The findings were subtle, yet, the fact that the level of disruptive behavior fell into what educators classify as “the normal range” failed to create headlines and create a buzz in the media. Instead, parents, day care providers, and educators are fixated on the negative findings, fueling the age old debate -- is day care harmful, beneficial, or neither.
Despite the fact that one out of three children in the United States attend some form of day care, and, one in three children do not get into fights at school, argue with teachers or exhibit classroom disobedience, this report is tugging at the hearts of Baton Rouge area parents. “I’m considering quitting my job to keep our sons out of day care since learning about this report,” says Michelle Horne of Cicero, New York.
Interestingly, the study failed to identify how time in day care could contribute to the disruptive behavior it warned parents about. “Which is even more upsetting because you’re left wondering how to make the best choice for your children, and how to ensure the time they spend in day care is positive and productive,” Horne says astutely.
And the good?
Arguably passive aggressive “good news”, the report’s other key finding cited “when children receive high quality child care before kindergarten (care defined as anything other than being home with the mother), their vocabulary skills in fifth grade were higher than those of kids who had gotten lower-quality care.” Ironically, this good news actually triggers another round of questions and angst for parents. “It’s tough to know what is considered high quality,” says Diane Saturo of Canton, Georgia, “Of course a child’s safety is a top priority, but I wonder what else we should be looking for? What determines “high quality”?”
Maintaining physical, mental and emotional health is important regardless of the length of time a child spends in day care. However, in addition to ensuring your child’s physical and emotional well being is safely guarded, The National Institute for Early Education Research (www.nieer.org) urges parents like the Saturos’s, who are looking for day care, to consider the educational impact when assessing a center’s level of quality. In their own report, Increasing the Effectiveness of Preschool Programs which was released in November 2006 well in advance of the NIH’s study, The NIEER said parents need to ask “What are the education requirement for the staff?”, “What is the teacher-child ratio?” and “What are the maximum group sizes?” for three, four and five year olds attending the day care center.
“Minimum requirements for a high quality day care program that incorporates a preschool setting should include teachers with a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood education, class sizes no larger than 20, and staff-child ratios no larger than 1 to 10,” said the NIEER’s report.
Keeping your child healthy is another key aspect of sending him or her to day care. “Whenever you have a group of children in close proximity, you’re going to have germs. The key to keeping kids healthy is to find ways to prevent them from spreading those germs or otherwise making themselves sick,” says Amy Lipton, mother and CEO of Stuck on You, a company that specializes in tools that help parents and teachers keep children healthier and more organized during the school year. “By teaching kids to use their own utensils and sippy cups, and to take proper, age-appropriate precautions for their health, we can keep children – and their families – healthier,” says Lipton.
Balancing the news
“All day care experiences are not the same, and it’s important to find one that fits the needs, personality, and goals of each individual family,” says psychologist, Dr. Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D., “It is equally important for parents to understand there can be many beneficial aspects of day care.”
Far more encouraging than the NIH’s watered down good news, educators say children who attend day care tend to be outgoing, and have less anxiety when going to kindergarten and first grade. “Children who have experience being away from home or in structured settings are better prepared for school,” says retired elementary school principal BethAnn Pederson, Ph.D. of Baton Rouge.
“All four of my sons attended day care, and since none of their teachers ever reported them exhibiting ‘disruptive behavior’, it would seem we beat the (NIH report’s) odds,” says Pederson, “I think that a combined team of consistent and concise parental involvement, trained educators and nurturing day care workers can actually help children develop strong academic, self confidence and effective communication skills.”
Echoing Pederson’s sentiments, Panaccione says where a child spends his or her day isn’t as crucial as how the day is spent. “A child whose experiences interacting at different stations or with diverse early learning tools, and playing independently as well as with peers are enhanced with love, attention and nurturing from their parents are likely to develop at a healthy ‘normal’ emotional rate. Whether some of those play and academic moments occur in the home or outside, the most important thing is that they -- along with the love, support and nurturing -- occur.”