Children from low socioeconomic status (SES) families who attended a child care center early in life were on equal academic footing with those from higher SES families at age 12, according to a new report.
Furthermore, participation in any type of child care services (CCS) for more than 35 hours a week was associated with better scores on reading, writing and math exams in sixth grade compared to low exposure to CCS (less than five hours per week) among children from low SES families.
Researchers detailed the findings in the report “Child Care Services, Socioeconomic Inequalities, and Academic Performance” (Laurin JC, et al. Pediatrics. Nov. 23, 2015, www.pediatrics.org/cgi/doi/10.1542/peds.2015-0419).
The authors used data from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development (QLSCD), which enrolled 2,120 newborns between 1997 and 1998. The QLSCD was initiated during implementation of family-based and center-based CCS offered at a very low cost — $5 per day — to families throughout Quebec. Mothers were asked about the number of hours and type of CCS exposure when their children were 5 months old and 1.5, 2.5, 3.5, 4.5 and 12 years old.
The analysis also used the results of reading, writing and mathematics exams required of Quebec students at the end of sixth grade.
“One would think that looking at child care and early childhood, (child care) might have an impact at the beginning of elementary school years,” said Sylvana M. Côté, Ph.D., co-author of the report. “But the fact that we show these associations with long-term school performance was surprising to me.”
Children from low SES families who received high-intensity CCS (over 35 hours a week) had moderately better reading and writing scores and largely higher mathematics scores compared to those who received low-intensity CCS.
Children from low-SES families who received center-based CCS earlier in life (from 5 months) had significantly better reading, writing and mathematics scores compared to those who never attended center-based CCS. Those exposed to center-based CCS later (from 1.5 years) only had better reading and mathematics scores.
Children from low SES families who received center-based CCS from 5 months performed as well as children from families with adequate SES on all three exams.
Prior evidence that CCS promote academic achievement comes from structured experimental programs, such as Early Head Start, designed to serve the most disadvantaged children. This study indicated that CCS widely available in communities, which typically are of lower quality than experimental programs, can have comparable positive effects, according to the authors.
CCS use, especially early participation in center-based CCS, should be strongly encouraged for children growing up in a family with low SES, the authors said. Their data illustrated that current users of CCS mainly are from families with adequate SES.
“Pediatricians should encourage parents who have low education or low level of income to use child care, which is not necessarily what these families do,” said Dr. Côté.
The researchers accounted for this selection bias into CCS when evaluating results. They also controlled for a wide range of variables including sex, birth order, neighborhood safety, negative parenting, parents’ mental health and child-peer relationships.
The results support the importance of social policies that will facilitate access to CCS for disadvantaged children.
“We know that children from high-risk families, like low-SES families, have a higher risk of developing problems themselves,” said Dr. Côté. “We want to prevent that, and we know that early childhood prevention programs have long-term impact.”