Childcare may prevent emotional and behavioural problems later

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Children who spend some time in formal childcare are less likely to have behavioural problems than those that are cared for solely at home, according to new research.


The study of more than 1,400 French children by academics from Sorbonne University has found that high-quality centre-based childcare may be linked to lower levels of emotional symptoms.

The researchers claim that theirs is one of few studies to examine the association between childcare type and children’s psychological development over several years in a country with a policy of universal access to early childcare, directly comparing two different childcare types.

The results showed that compared with children in informal childcare, those who attended centre-based childcare had a lower likelihood of having high levels of emotional symptoms, problems with relationships with their peers, and low pro-social behaviours.

Children’s behavioural and emotional symptoms between three and eight years old were studied in relation to childcare during the first three years of life (centre-based, childminder, informal care).

The study is published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Key findings:

  • Formal childcare prior to the age of three years predicts low levels of emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems and high levels of pro-social behaviours into middle childhood, particularly if children attend for at least one year.
  • Childcare also appears to confer benefits in terms of pro-social behaviours.
  • The effects of centre-based, collective, childcare are stronger than those conferred by care provided by a childminder.
  • The data suggests that opportunities for young children’s socialisation and stimulation, such as those offered by quality centre-based childcare, can serve to prevent children’s emotional difficulties and help develop their psychosocial [their psychological development in a social environment] skills over the long term.

Attendance of centre-based childcare for more than one  year was especially protective of high levels of emotional, peer-related difficulties and low pro-social behaviours. Girls and children from a higher socio-economic background gained more benefits from childcare than boys and those from a less well-off background.

What did the study involve?

The study involved 1,428 children from the EDEN (Etude des Déterminants du développement et de la santé de l’Enfant) mother–child cohort set up in France (Nancy and Poitiers) who were followed from pregnancy to the age of eight.

To ascertain children’s emotional and behavioural patterns, researchers used the French version of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) reported by the children’s mother at ages three, five-and-a-half, and eight.

The SDQ includes 25 items which make up 5 scales of 5 items each: one positive (prosocial behaviours) and four negative (emotional symptoms, conduct problems, symptoms of hyperactivity/inattention and peer relationship problems). Each scale ranges from 0 to 10 points, with higher scores representing more problematic behaviours/symptoms except in the case of prosocial behaviours.

The researchers concluded, ‘Access to high-quality childcare in the first years of life may improve children’s emotional and cognitive development, prevent later emotional difficulties and promote prosocial behaviours.

‘Future research taking into account the daily time spent in childcare in nationally representative samples of children is needed to confirm these benefits on psychological development and whether they translate to a reduced likelihood of psychiatric disorders later in life.’

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said,

‘This research reiterates what early years experts have been saying for many years.
‘Giving all children the best start in life is key to a happy, productive society. Children need to be able to develop social and emotional skills at an early age when they mix with their peers in an enabling environment that promotes learning and development.

‘They need to learn about sharing, caring and empathy in order to become resilient, happy and balanced adults.

‘It’s time that policy decision-makers recognised the importance of high quality nursery education and invested in it sufficiently. The early years sector is currently suffering from a serious recruitment and retention crisis, largely due to low pay and status. Qualified staff are leaving for better paid jobs and there are not enough candidates to replace them.

‘Early years professional staff must be recognised on a par with teachers and rewarded accordingly.’

Background to the study

In France children start pre-school from the age of three.

The researchers point out that previous studies have only focused on short-term behavioural, and sometimes emotional, difficulties, and little is known about the potential long-term consequences of early-life childcare.

They say that France provides an interesting setting for this study because:

  • the number of places in formal childcare for children under 3 years of age is high (approximately 52 per cent of children can attend compared with 33 per cent on average in Europe)
  • childcare is of high quality (Unicef Report Card)
  • nearly all children enter the formal school system at three years of age (97 per cent start by age three and 99 per cent by age four), making it possible to isolate the role of childcare before the age of three
  • and early childcare is based on the principle of universality, i.e that all children irrespective of their background can access it.

French families tend to use two different types of formal childcare: centre-based care (approximately 27 per cent of children) and childminders with a state degree, authorised to take care of two to six children in their own home (approximately 49 per cent of children).

Centre-based childcare is generally of high quality in France. Time spent in formal childcare is 37–38 hours per week.

  • Read the study here
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