30 MAY 2003

Evidence from long-term study. Attending seems to have little effect on children from higher-income families

Day care helps poorest kids' development

Children from low-income families who attend day-care centres for a sustained period fare better on development tests than their counterparts who don't attend day care, according to a study prepared for the federal government. However, the study found that attending day care seems to have little impact on the test scores of children from middle- and upper-income families. Nor did the study find much impact among children from low-income families who had only attended day care for a short period.

"In general, the effects on child development seem minimal with effect sizes that ranged from negligible to moderately small," wrote the authors. "However, children in the lowest income group who attended sustained child care did have higher ... scores than those who did not, suggesting that children who are economically disadvantaged may benefit from child care."

The release of the report by Human Resources Development Canada comes as Quebec's new Liberal government is calling into question the universality of its popular $5-a-day day-care program, suggesting that it could become more costly for more affluent families.

The child-care study is based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, a major research project funded by the federal government that is tracking thousands of young Canadians from birth to age 25.

The survey, which began in 1994, is looking at a wide variety of elements in the lives of the children, and includes periodic testing of their development. The report, titled A Study of Family, Child Care and Well-Being in Young Canadian Families, examines what kind of child-care arrangements are being used by Canadian families and the effect that different types of child care have on the development of children.

Authors Tim Seifert, Patricia Canning and B. Lindemann found that, on average, children tended to enter child-care arrangements at around 2 years old.

Once in child care, they tended to remain there. The highest test scores were found among children from upper-income families, defined as being over $60,000 for a household of up to two people and over $80,000 for a family of three or more. The second-highest scores tended to be children from middle-income families. The one area in which it appears to make the most difference is for children from the lowest income brackets. This bracket was defined as under $10,000 for a family of one to four people and under $15,000 for a family of five or more.

In fact, children who were not in child care scored substantially lower on the development tests, while those who had been in day care for a while achieved similar scores to children from middle-income families.

But while the findings suggest that day care leads to higher test scores for low-income kids, the researchers warn that more research would have to be done to determine whether there is a causal relationship.

By Elizabeth Thompson

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