Does Child Care Equal Aggressive Behavior?
By Betsy Weaver

In the summer of 2001, the National Institutes of Health study on child care in America – an ongoing study over the past 10 years of 1,300 children, ages 4-1/2 to 5-1/2, in child care – released preliminary findings. There was a storm of controversy about one finding: Children who spend more than 30 hours a week in child care scored higher (17 percent) on a scale of aggression than children who spend 10 hours or less (5 percent). By kindergarten, the gap between these groups had lessened to 19 percent and 9 percent respectively.

While this preliminary finding was what made the headlines, many of the study’s authors were frustrated that a full understanding of this finding, as well as other equally important findings, was lost in the shadow of the headlines. Psychologist Kathleen McCartney, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was one such researcher. We spoke with McCartney about this study and what parents need to know to put the findings in perspective. Here’s some of what she had to say:

The first round of media coverage presented just a small slice of this study’s findings: the “bad news” – that more hours spent in child care are associated with behavior problems and aggression. The second round of coverage included more findings, but the damage had already been done. The public remembered only “child care = aggressive behavior.”

The connection between hours spent in child care and aggressive behavior is real: 17 percent of young children in child care for more than 30 hours per week scored higher on a scale of aggressive behavior, compared to 5 percent for those who were in care for 10 hours or less per week. In kindergarten, the numbers were 19 percent for those who were in care for more than 30 hours and 9 percent for those in care for 10 hours or less.

But what parents need to know is: What does this finding mean? And, what other important findings came out of this study?

• On the scale that was used to determine aggressive behavior, 17 percent was the norm – meaning that in the normal population of kids, 17 percent have the same scores as those in this study. This context has been lost in the media’s telling of the findings. If you took a sample of individuals reading this article, for example, 17 percent would score in the aggressive range the way the children in the study did.

• Another critical point: Could this finding mean that kids who might be more challenging are kept in day care longer because they are difficult? Or does this finding mean that more time in child care makes some kids more difficult? We don’t know which of these is true. Is it the child, or the hours spent in care? Or is the real question why are kids who are spending less time in child care so far below the figure in the normal population, which is the same as for those who spend longer periods in child care? 

• “Aggressive behavior” sounds awful. However, this scale looked at a wide range of behaviors, many of which you might not associate with aggressive behavior. For example: “argues, brags, demands attention, is jealous, talks a lot, is loud, is stubborn,” are all behaviors that were assessed. For most of these, “aggressive behavior” is not what comes to mind when reviewing this list. They are all on this scale. So even the words “aggressive behavior” need to be tempered when you look more closely.

• Likewise, 83 percent of children who spend 30 hours or more in child care are doing just fine! This means that eight out of 10 kids are learning and growing in their child-care settings and not showing signs of “aggressive behavior.” We shouldn’t forget that when we think of the 17 percent and 19 percent.

• Also not reported in the flurry of headlines was that “family effect” on aggressive behavior was just as strong an effect as the number of hours in care. Maternal sensitivity, for example, was significant. So while the same study found that hours in care and maternal sensitivity are both associated with increases in aggressive behavior, what was heard was “the more time spent in child care, the more aggressive a child is.”

Quality Care Is Key

What is the most important finding in this study? The bottom line, according to McCartney, is that children can and do thrive in quality child care.

Another preliminary finding not touted in media reports showed the positive effects of learning and development for children in quality child care. The most important word here is “quality.”

Perhaps the most frightening discovery, which no one is focusing on, is that the study also found that 57 percent of the child-care settings looked at had low-quality care. That’s more than half!

The important question is not why do 17 percent of kids in child care for more than 30 hours a week have a higher level of aggressive behavior than kids who spend less time in care. It’s why, when we know quality child care can have hugely positive effects on the development of young minds and bodies, do we find that 57 percent of the care in this study is low quality?

One reason for this situation is that in this country we do not feel early childhood education is a public responsibility. We are still ambivalent about mothers working. While this ambivalence is effective in making parents feel guilty, it doesn’t help to improve the quality of the care families use.

With more than 65 percent of families with young children using child care, we should be looking at what is relevant to the question of quality care, McCartney says. We accept elementary school, high school and even college as public responsibility, so why not early childhood education? By focusing on the hours spent in child care and aggressive behavior we are diverted from the more important issue.

If children can thrive in quality child care, parents need to know what to look for in evaluating quality (see “What Is Quality Child Care?”). There are many factors that help us to determine whether child care is high-quality care. The most important things parents can do to ensure their children are getting high-quality care, McCartney says, are:

1. Find child-care providers whose values match yours.
Make sure, by observation and asking questions, that you agree with a prospective care provider about discipline and curriculum, for example.

2. Observe a lot
. This can be difficult if you work. But it’s important to see words and philosophies in action. Seeing firsthand how the day is going and how the teachers interact with kids is key. Do this when your child is not with you, as well as when she’s been invited to visit. 

3. Make sure your child’s care provider or the center is licensed by the state and, if possible, is also accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
If licensed, the student-teacher ratio must adhere to specific guidelines, which vary from state to state.

4. Look for an “open-door” policy.
The center or home child-care group must allow parents to drop in any time, unannounced. It’s vital that you do this. Again, this can be difficult logistically, but you must make sure your child is safe and happy, and the program is running smoothly.
This is an important study that parents have a right and responsibility to know about. There is much more to study and many more questions to answer. But it is reassuring to know that most children can do just fine in high-quality child care.

Parents have the power, in some measure, to determine that their children are in quality care. By matching values, observing, making sure child-care providers are licensed and dropping by for unannounced visits, you can help to ensure that your children have a better care experience. And, by raising the bar, more children will be able to thrive in high-quality child care.



A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies
, edited by Judy S. Deloache, Alma Gottlieb and Jerome S. Bruner, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species
, by Sarah Blaffer Hardy, Ballantine Books, 2000.

Redirecting Children's Behavior
, by Kathryn J. Kvolsaacap, Parenting Press, 1997.


National Association for the Education of Young Children
, 202-232-8777– Provides child-care advocacy and resources.

National Network for Child Care
 – Offers advice and resources for handling child care.

From United Parenting Publications, August 2001