Children who live in chaotic, disorganized home environments benefit significantly when they attend daycare on a regular basis, according to a new study.
The findings show that children from dysfunctional homes who spend more time in daycare during infancy and early childhood have better cognitive, emotional, and social development than peers from similar homes who attend fewer hours of weekly child care.
Several studies have linked households that are overcrowded, noisy, unclean, and lacking predictable routines with low academic achievement as well as attention, social, and behavioral problems among children in poverty.
The current study, led by developmental psychologist Dr. Daniel Berry of the University of Illinois, involved more than 1,200 children from predominantly low-income families in rural Appalachia and North Carolina.
The researchers followed the children’s development from the age of seven months to five years, observing the children’s interactions with their primary caregiver at home and with their caregivers in child-care centers or other settings.
Children in the study spent an average of 21 hours weekly in nonparental care prior to age three, according to their families’ reports. About one third of the children spent 30 or more hours weekly in nonparental care, either in child-care centers or informal settings, such as relatives’ homes.
When the children turned four years old, they were given a battery of executive functioning tests, which measured their abilities to regulate their thoughts and attention, skills that impact learning and social development.
Later, the children were tested on their vocabulary and academic achievement at age five, and their pre-kindergarten teachers assessed them on their social behavior — how well they could control their emotions and get along with their peers.
Higher levels of household chaos and disorganization during early childhood were tied to poorer executive functioning, weaker vocabularies, and worse social behavior. However, these detrimental associations were significantly moderated by the amount of time the children attended daycare.
For those who attended daycare 35 hours or more per week, the connections between household chaos and adverse developmental outcomes were eliminated. The findings suggest that the mitigating effects of child care on the social and cognitive outcomes were explained largely by the buffering role that daycare played in protecting children’s executive functioning.
“The exposure to greater hours and higher quality care may provide a mitigating effect on the impact of chaos in the home,” Berry said. “We don’t understand the mechanisms fully, but we hypothesize that minimizing young children’s exposure to highly chaotic environments may provide some relief.”
Household chaos such as constant noise from a television, or frequent comings and goings by household members and visitors, may negatively impact a child’s executive functioning by frequently diverting the child’s attention, impairing their ability to regulate their attention and modulate their arousal, the researchers hypothesized.
Previous research on the effects of daycare on children has shown mixed results, with some studies suggesting that children who spend greater time in child care are prone to more behavioral problems.
However, families in poverty were underrepresented in many of these samples, and the developmental implications of child care may differ substantially for children from high-risk home environments, Berry said.
“One of the biggest take-home messages for me is that this emerging body of research highlights the critical importance of considering the interplay of children’s experiences across the multiple ecologies of early childhood,” Berry said.