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ONE of the first decisions working parents must make is whether to place their child in a day care center. Preschool programs and day care centers have been studied extensively by researchers, and the reports are usually a mixed bag of risks and benefits.
The consensus of most child development specialists is that participation in day care and preschool programs is associated with improving children’s pre-academic skills, language and memory; preparing them for kindergarten; and giving them an edge that persists through elementary school. A recent study of public school prekindergartens in Tulsa, Okla., found that children experienced gains of nine months in prereading skills and five months in premath skills compared with other children their age.
The downside of day care — an increase in aggressiveness noted in several studies, including the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, one of the largest long-term government studies supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development — persists through elementary school, and the more hours a child spends in day care, the worse it is. But many researchers dismiss the problem, saying the increases are so small as to be insignificant.
And that, she said, leads to what she calls “the two-arm problem: you’ve got three crying infants and only two arms, you can’t pick up all the infants at once.” As a result, she said, the quality of infant care provided in child care centers tends to be lower than infant care in more informal settings, and the optimal age for putting a child in a day care center may be around 2 or 3.
When parents are choosing a child care center, experts say they should seek out a program that is certified and licensed, meaning it meets basic requirements, and that it is accredited by a professional organization like the National Association for Education of Young Children. They should ask about the qualifications of teachers and the staff turnover rates, and inquire about the caregiver-to-child ratio, which should be 1 caregiver for every 4 infants or toddlers, and 1 to 10 for prekindergarteners.
Parents should always be free to drop in at a center unannounced, said Jerlean Daniel, the association’s deputy executive director.
“When you go into a child care center or program or home, what you really want to do is see how the providers are acting toward the other children,” said Peg Burchinal, an applied statistician who has worked on many child care studies and is affiliated with both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California, Irvine. “They’re going to be nice to your child when you’re there, but how are they acting toward the other children? Are they talking to them? Do they sound like they like them? Are the children engaged, or is there just a lot of milling about?”
It may be reassuring to parents to hear that ultimately, psychologists say, it is family characteristics — including income, parents’ education level and the mother’s sensitivity — that are more strongly linked to child development than any element of child care.
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