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Raising Questions : How Effective Is Day Care? O.C. Children, Parents and Other Care-Givers Are Being Closely Monitored. A UC Irvine Professor Expects the Detailed Study to Provide the Definitive Answers on the Pros and Cons.

April 11, 1993|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's every working parent's nightmare.

You've both got great careers, a beautiful house, nice cars and money to splurge on your darling children.

But you've paid a price. You work long hours, and your babies spend more time in day care or with a nanny than with you. Whether that's healthy, developmentally, is a worry to families in which both parents are working to either maintain careers or make ends meet. In California, 60% of all children are growing up in such households.

Up to now, research has been diverse and inconclusive: Some says day-care children are more independent and progress quicker academically; others show they may become less attached to their mothers and may have more emotional and behavioral problems later in life.

But at UC Irvine, a group of social ecologists are participating in a historic national study to determine--perhaps, once and for all--the effects of child care on children and their families.

The project will hopefully become the definitive study on the effects of child care, said Alison Clarke-Stewart, professor of UCI's School of Social Ecology and one of the study's leading researchers.

Nearly 1,300 children and their families from Orange County and nine other locations across the country are being closely monitored in the project that began in 1991 and is being conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

Results are expected to be released by 1996. And researchers hope to receive additional funding to continue monitoring the children through elementary school age and possibly beyond.

Because child care and its effect on future generations is such a sensitive subject, project leaders declined to give any conclusions until all the data has been analyzed.

But early observations from researchers "don't give cause for alarm. . .if the quality of child care is high," said Sara Friedman of the child health institute. "But I won't be surprised if we find that poor quality or neglect in child care can interfere with (children's) development."

Considered the most comprehensive child-care study ever undertaken in the nation, the federally funded project is examining children's experiences during their first three years in child care--whether they include day-care centers, preschools, nannies, or children at home with their mothers. The number of hours and the quality of child care are also being evaluated.

The project includes children from single and two-parent families from a variety of social, ethnic and economic backgrounds. The UCI portion of the study is following 120 randomly selected Orange County children and their families. The children were enrolled in the study soon after birth in 1991.

To monitor the children's intellectual, linguistic, social, emotional and physical development, researchers are observing the youngsters with their families at home, in their day care environments and in a laboratory playroom.

The children, their parents and other care-givers are being interviewed and monitored five times at important developmental stages during the children's first three years of life.

What distinguishes this research from previous studies is the emphasis on examining the youngsters' home environments, their interactions with their parents, and their individual personalities and temperaments, according to Stewart, who is also the author of "Daycare" (Harvard University Press, $9.95).

What researchers hope to find is clear definitions of what constitutes good child-care conditions that enable youngsters to thrive, and which are detrimental.

What will be useful to parents, for example, is if researchers can glean from the results a threshold of how many hours a week of day care may be risky to children's development, said Clarke-Stewart. "Then you would have a clearer idea of what kind of combination of family and day-care experiences work together for good versus bad," she said.

*

Child development experts generally agree that quality day care is the key.

"Under good quality care, kids thrive. Under bad quality care kids don't," said psychologist Jay Belsky, a Pennsylvania State University professor of human development and a researcher in the child care study.

"Unfortunately, the overall quality of care in this country is not what it should be or could be," he said.

His concern is that increasingly younger children and babies are being placed in the care of others for an extensive number of hours.

"The 1980s was a decade of dramatic change in the ecology of childhood in America," Belsky said. "The dramatic increase was not in the number of mothers working but in the timing of their return to work. In the 1990s, I've seen data on children under 3 months of age" in extensive child care.

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