Childcare services are all about quality. We have discussed this idea many times in this blog.
Although there is a rich body of research on the effects of preschool or childcare attendance, we know much less about how differences in service quality affect child development.
This is an important topic because in many countries, including in Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of children in non-parental care has been increasing substantially in recent years.
Let’s Talk Quality!
We know that the impact of attending childcare on child development depends critically on its quality. We also know that process quality, or the frequency, type and nature of the interactions between children and their caregiver, is the aspect that matters the most.
Our recent publication in the prestigious Journal of Human Resources contributes to this research agenda.
We studied Programa Nacional Cuna Mas in Peru, which offers childcare services to children aged 6-36 months in urban areas with high rates of poverty. We collected data on 291 Cuna Mas centers, 2 caregivers in each center, and over 2,000 children. We also filmed caregivers’ interactions with the children in their care, analyzed these videos using a protocol that allows for scoring the quality of adult-child interactions in this type of setting, and measured children’s development in their homes.
We found that children exposed to caregivers who demonstrate higher-quality interactions had better cognitive, language and fine motor development.
Watch the following video for an overview of the study’s findings and implications:
Beyond this main result, the study complements and extends the existing research on childcare quality in three ways:
Studying Infants and Toddlers
We decided to study children 2 years of age and younger because this is the age group for which the evidence is scarce. Yet this is also an age group that should be paid careful attention to: studies have shown that socioeconomic gradients between poorer and richer children appear at a very early age.
Focusing on Process Quality
Most previous research on childcare quality from developing countries has focused on “global” measures of quality, which refers to a combination of child-caregiver interactions and other features of quality such as safety, hygiene and the availability of materials. Given the evidence from the United States on the importance of process quality for child development, we decided to focus exclusively on the latter using an observation tool called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS. For the age range of interest, the tool measures the quality of interactions in two domains: Emotional and Behavioral Support, and Engaged Support for Learning.
Looking at Distributional Effects of Quality
A number of studies from high-income countries have shown that preschool attendance could be particularly beneficial to children with the poorest developmental outcomes. We complemented this work by looking at the association between the quality of care and child development. While our results showed that this association was significant throughout most of the distribution of child development, we also found evidence that this association could be particularly strong for children with the lowest developmental outcomes. This has important implications when it comes to targeting childcare services to those who need and could benefit from it the most.
The bottom line is: the quality of interactions between caregivers and children matters. This implies that policy makers should invest effort and resources into creating the conditions to train and retain caregivers who can provide high-quality interactions to the children in their care.