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Commentary: Reaction to NIH Day Care Research

By Susan Hoff, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

When I saw the new research report linking child care for preschoolers with later problem behaviors in school, I thought "Great. One more thing for working mothers and fathers to feel guilty about and another black eye for the child care profession." Sadly, I didn't initially think about the impact on children. And I've been working with and advocating for young children for almost 25 years. After much introspection, it occurred to me that the tendency not to focus on children and their needs first is a big part of the problem.

Infants and young children are naturally egocentric. They need the focused attention of adults who care deeply about them in order to develop a sense of trust and the ability to maintain healthy relationships throughout life. If this weren't the case, human mothers would give birth to litters of five or six babies at a time and those babies would become self sufficient quickly, rather than the natural slow progression of our species.

For the most part, child care is designed for the convenience of adults, not the development of children. Most programs have large child to caregiver ratios and often unmanageable group sizes. For instance, Texas child care licensing standards allow one adult to be solely responsible for 11 two-year-olds. Even the most loving and caring individual in the world can't give that many little ones the one on one attention they need to thrive.

And, in addition to groups being too large and with too few caregivers, most child care programs herd young children into same age groups. This is not the natural course of events. Families may have more than one child, but they are generally separated by at least a year. Young children need different types of adult attention and support at different stages of development and younger siblings learn from older brothers and sisters. That doesn't happen when a child is surrounded by a group of children of the same age, with the same demands and needs as his own. Children in this type of setting quickly learn that the "squeaky wheel gets the grease," which may account for much of the disruptive behaviors researchers observed.

Finally, the standard practice in child care centers is to move children to a new classroom and new caregiver each year. This practice makes program management easier, but it ignores young children's need for consistency. From a child's point of view, this is like moving to a new home and getting a new parent and new brothers and sisters every time she has a birthday. It wreaks havoc on the ability to build attachments with adults and with other children. Children who don't know how to establish relationships with others tend to have a lack of respect for them - one of the key negative characteristics noted in the study.

So what do we do? More than half of the children under the age of five spend all or part of their day in child care while their parents work to support them. This probably isn't going to change. So maybe it's time to look at changing the system to meet the needs of children rather than trying to make children adapt to fit the system.

Several years ago, my then five-year-old daughter asked me the name of the book I was reading. "It's called Children's Thinking," I told her. She thought for a minute and asked:

"Was it written by children?"

"No," I said.

"Then how do they know they're right?" she asked. She had a point.

It costs more, but we can invest in child care programs that replicate family life. Small group sizes and multi-age groups of children who stay together with the same caregiver for at least two to three years can make a world of difference. We can decide to structure child care based on our children's point of view or we can continue to raise the majority of them to believe that the only way they can get attention is to grab it before someone else does.

Susan Hoff is President and CEO of the Child Care Group in Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.