Backgrounder: The NICHD's 16-Year Study of Child Care & Development


Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

Robert Bock or Marianne Glass Miller

May 14, 2010

In 1991, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) launched the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD) at sites affiliated with 10 research universities across the country. The study followed more than 1,000 children from the time they were 1 month old, investigating the short- and long-term relationships between child care and children’s development. It is the most comprehensive study to date of children and the many environments in which they develop.

Researchers examined how differences among families, children and child care arrangements are linked to the intellectual, social and emotional development and health of children. The study was not designed to determine cause and effect and so could not demonstrate conclusively whether or not a given aspect of the child care experience caused a particular effect. During the study, researchers examined children’s experiences in child care, their home life, school achievement and behavior using many different measurements and tests. Researchers also collected information about the children’s gender and race, their mothers’ education, her mental health and the family’s makeup and economic status. Although the study sample was not representative of the nation as a whole, the participant families come from diverse geographic, demographic, economic and ethnic backgrounds.

Data Collection

1 Month to 4½ Years Old

  • Children were assessed at 1, 6 and 15 months of age, and when they were 2, 3 and 4½ years old.
  • Mothers regularly reported the number of hours each week their children were in child care.
  • Mothers reported whether their children were cared for in their own home, in another home or in a child care center.
  • Researchers observed the quality of child care at five stages during the child’s first 4½ years.
  • Caregivers evaluated children’s behavior when they were 4½.
  • Researchers observed the nature and quality of parental care five times in the first 4½ years.
  • Researchers tested letter or word recognition and basic math skills when the children were 4½.

Early School Years

  • Children were assessed in kindergarten and each year in grades 1–6.
  • Researchers observed the quality of the classroom experience in grades 1, 3 and 5.
  • Researchers conducted tests of letter and word recognition when the children were in first grade and reading tests in grades three and five.
  • First-, third- and fifth-grade teachers evaluated children’s behavior.
  • Researchers tested math problem-solving skills in grades 1, 3 and 5.

Teenage Years

  • Adolescents were assessed at age 15.
  • Researchers tested reading comprehension, math skills and cognitive ability.
  • Teenagers reported on their tendency to take risks by responding to a questionnaire, indicating, for example, if they had smoked, had alcohol or taken drugs in the previous year; threatened to use a weapon; or harmed property.
  • Adolescents answered questionnaires about their impulsivity, rating the degree to which they agreed with such statements as: "I do things without giving them enough thought."
  • Teenagers evaluated their behavior according to a list of 119 problem behaviors, rating the degree to which they behaved inappropriately or acted out.
  • Researchers reviewed school transcripts.

Major Findings

Phase One: 0–3 Years

  • Family income, mothers’ psychological well-being and maternal behavior have more of an influence on children’s social competence at 2 and 3 years of age than do child care arrangements (1999).
  • Children in higher-quality child care display greater social competence and cooperation and less problem behavior at 2 and 3 years of age (1999).
  • Children attending child care centers that meet professional standards for quality score higher on school readiness and language tests and have fewer behavioral problems than their peers in centers not meeting such standards (1999).
  • Children of depressed mothers performed more poorly on measures of school readiness, verbal comprehension and expressive language skills at 36 months of age than children of mothers who never reported depression. In addition, children of depressed mothers were reported to be less cooperative and to have more problem behaviors at 36 months; however, even when mothers were depressed, if they were also sensitive their children fared better (1999).
  • There is no consistent relation between the hours infants and toddlers spend in child care and these children's cognitive, linguistic or social development (1999).
  • Fathers who had high levels of self-esteem were more involved in caring for their children than were fathers with lower self-esteem (2000).

Phase Two: Through First Grade

  • The more time children spent in child care from birth to age 4½, the more adults tended to rate them (at age 4½ and at kindergarten) as less likely to get along with others, as more assertive, disobedient and aggressive. However, the researchers cautioned that for the vast majority of children, the levels of the behaviors reported were well within the normal range (2003).

Phase Three: Through Sixth Grade

  • Children who are overweight as toddlers or preschoolers are more likely to be overweight or obese in early adolescence (2006).
  • A child’s family life has more influence on a child’s development through age 4½ than does a child’s experience in child care (2006).
  • Children who received higher-quality child care before entering kindergarten had better vocabulary scores in the fifth grade than did children who received lower quality care. In addition, the more time children spent in center-based care before kindergarten, the more likely their sixth grade teachers were to report such problem behaviors as "gets in many fights," "disobedient at school" and "argues a lot." However, the increase in vocabulary and problem behaviors was small, and parenting quality is a much more important predictor of child development than type, quantity or quality of child care (2007).

Phase Four: Through Ninth Grade

  • The activity level of a large group of American children dropped sharply between age 9 and age 15, when most failed to reach the daily recommended activity level (2008).
  • Teens who were in high-quality child care settings as young children scored higher on measures of academic and cognitive achievement and reported fewer acting-out behaviors than peers who were in lower-quality child care arrangements during their early years (2010).
top of pageBACK TO TOP