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Does daycare turn children into monsters?!

by on 2013/11/08

A recently published study that examined the effects of different types of childcare on children’s behaviour has been covered in the media with the question ‘Does daycare turn children into monsters?’ So I read this headline in the Daily Mail and I wondered to myself how did these researchers measure ‘monster’ behaviour? Well clearly they didn’t measure this! But what did they measure and what did they find to lead to such a headline?

Who conducted this study?

The lead author is Alan Stein based at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Oxford and also part of the Families, Children and Child Care project team.  The paper entitled “The influence of different forms of early childcare on children’s emotional and behavioural development at school entry” was published in the Journal Child: Care, Health, and Development.

What did they measure?

The data reported represents the 5th wave of the Families, Children and Child Care longitudinal study when the children assessed were 51 months and drawn from 996 families. The data inferring children’s behavioural and emotional development is based on parent and teachers ratings of children on a questionnaire called the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) sent prior to a home interview and collected during the home visit. The SDQ is used widely in research studies with children – both typically developing and clinical samples. It is a brief measure – the parent and teacher versions of the questionnaire both contain 25 items, so it really provides a brief snapshot of behavioural and emotional development.

What did the researchers find?

Parent’s (mothers took part in the study) questionnaire responses showed that spending more time in group care (i.e. daycare) was a predictor of total problem scores on the questionnaire and a predictor more specifically of hyperactivity. The researchers also reported that more time in child-minding predicted more hyperactivity, while more time with grandparents predicted more peer problems.

The teacher’s questionnaire responses differed somewhat from the parent data. Here time spent in daycare was not associated with any difference on the total problem score measure. Children who spent more time in daycare centres were more likely to be hyperactive, based on the specific items in the questionnaire that assessed hyperactivity. Children who received more care by child-minders were also more likely to have peer problems.

Caution in interpreting the results

The different data generated by parent and teacher reports highlights the difficulty in interpreting results based on a short questionnaire measure alone.  While the data collected are part of a longitudinal study with multiple assessment points including home interviews, the parent and teacher data reported in the current study represents this brief questionnaire data only.  A number of other factors may have influenced results. The number of children observed in each of the child care settings varied. While 92% of the initial sample of children who had nannies or attended daycare centres participated, only 60% of children who were minded by grand-parents and 69% of children looked after by child-minders took part at the 36 month observation time-point. These differences in attrition rates (rate at which participants are lost across a follow-up period) according to type of child care may have biased some of the findings. Importantly, the greatest attrition rate was for grand-parents and child-minders – two of the forms of child-care for which negative findings for children’s behaviour were reported. Were those grand-parents and child-minders who dropped out of the study different from those who stayed in on some important variables?  The authors also note that overall the effects for their child-care findings were small in the discussion of their paper. Unfortunately this point is not mentioned by any of the media articles on the findings.  Numerous studies have now examined the effects of child care on children’s behaviour and the study findings need to be set within this context. It is not difficult to find papers in the literature that do not report negative effects of child care on children’s behaviour.

How were the study findings handled by the media?

The study findings were covered by a number of newspapers including The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail. The Daily Telegraph article was cautious in describing the strength of the study findings referring to the study as “uncovering trends” relating to children who were in formal child-care. In contrast the Daily Mail article did not refer to the authors’ own comments on the strength of their findings as reported in the Journal article. Most disturbing is using a headline ‘Does day-care turn children into monsters?’ with all the connotations that goes with such a headline.

A. Stein, L.-E. Malmberg, P. Leach, J. Barnes, K. Sylva, & the FCCC Team (2013). The influence of different forms of early childcare on children’s emotional and behavioural development at school entry”. Child: Care, Health, and Development: 39(5): 676-687. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2214.2012.01421.x

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