According to a recent survey, fully 58% of children who are 5 years or younger are in nonparental arrangements on a regular basis, including infant care centers, Head Start, relative care, family day care homes, and nanny care. Child care becomes especially common by the later preschool years, when 76% of 4-year-olds and 83% of 5-year-olds are in some form of nonparental care. However, several recent studies have suggested that the quality of this care is highly variable. Structural adjustable characteristics are aspects of infant care settings such as group size, child–adult ratio, caregiver education, and caregiver training that might be subject to regulation by communities or states. Child care processes are the experiences that children have in child care settings, including interactions with caregivers and peers and opportunities to participate in different activities.
In a recent comprehensive review of infant care research that was published last year, we examined numerous studies that looked at relations between process measures of child care quality and children’s developmental outcomes. With respect to infant care, we concluded that high-quality day care clearly has positive effects on children’s intellectual, verbal, and cognitive development, especially when children would otherwise experience impoverished and relatively unstimulating home environments. Care of unknown quality may have deleterious effects. In terms of care for older preschool children, we concluded that center-based day care, presumably of high quality, can have positive effects on children’s intellectual development, regardless of family background, and does not seem to have negative effects on any groups of children. Structural adjustable characteristics of child care settings have been shown to be associated with children’s academic, cognitive, behavioral, and social development. Some of the most robust associations in the child care literature are those between structural adjustable characteristics and process quality.
Recent research provides strong indications that infant care quality in both structural adjustable and process terms has significant and positive effects on children’s cognitive development, language skills, social competence, behavioral adjustment, and work habits. Each of these adjustment indicators plays a role in children’s readiness to learn and ability to profit from instruction. Furthermore, recent longitudinal research demonstrates that infant care quality during the infant and preschool years continues to have positive effects on children’s success at school and academic progress into the early elementary years. One of the challenges for future research is further consideration of the effects of child care quality over time in conjunction with the quality of school classroom environments that children experience subsequent to infant care. Another challenge for future research is to test a mediational model of the influence of the components of infant care quality on children’s development. It is likely that structural adjustable factors exert their influence by altering the quality of the care provided to children. Tests of a full mediation model should be conducted, the results of which may allow us to draw firm conclusions about how best to improve child care quality so that all children can benefit developmentally from their experiences in these settings. Given the knowledge that is available at this point in time, child care programs should strive to meet the recommendations of organizations such as the American Public Health Association. These guidelines include a child-staff ratio of 3:1 in infant/toddler classrooms and 6:1 in preschool rooms, and maximum group sizes of six children in infant/toddler classrooms and 14 children in preschool rooms.