Ever since women entered the labour market in the 1960s, there has been a steady increase in the number of publicly funded daycare centres and in the proportion of young children attending them. This has also been the case in Denmark, and today over 90 percent of all children aged 1-5 years spend a substantial part of their early life in a daycare setting.
In recent years there has been increasing concern in the public debate on the quality of daycare, fuelled by recent research that shows a deterioration of child-staff ratios and staff education level in the Danish public daycare sector since the mid-eighties. A new review from SFI (SFI-report 14:23) analyses a number of international studies on the quality and impact of daycare.
Interaction is the most important factor
The review shows that the long-term impact of daycare attendance has been examined in a number of countries. Despite the very different societies and cultures involved, the conclusions are remarkably similar. Overall these studies show that children attending public daycare achieve better educational outcomes and labour market participation, and have a reduced crime rate compared with children who do not attend daycare.
Research also finds that disadvantaged children in particular seem to benefit from access to public daycare. However, the positive results depend on the overall quality of the daycare.
Research shows that the interaction between children and staff is the single most important factor for the social, emotional and cognitive development of the child. The child’s emotional and cognitive development is promoted when they are met with responsiveness, attentiveness and positive feedback from the adult.
In some of the earliest experiments, with high-quality daycare intervention for disadvantaged children, one common feature was the focus on the quality of the child-teacher interaction. This was through an explicitly formulated curriculum with age-appropriate play activities, or learning games, aimed at stimulating the child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and creative skills. The learning games were based on the idea that children learn best by being active participators, with the teacher’s role to facilitate activities and follow the child’s lead and interests.
However, the quality of interaction in a daycare setting is found to be affected by a number of parameters such as staff-child ratio, group size, staff education and qualification.
Research shows that a change of staff-child ratio and group size to smaller groups with fewer children per adult is associated with the adults being more sensitive and attentive to the children, a higher staff-child interaction frequency and the children being more engaged in learning something new. This, in turn, is found to have a positive effect on children's language and cognitive skills, which is also reflected in their school readiness. A more favourable staff-child ratio is also associated with a decrease in children’s production of stress hormones and fewer behavioural problems and conflicts.
Research also shows that the staff’s education and qualifications affect the child-staff interaction. In child groups with relevantly and highly educated staff, the staff spend relatively more time with the children and are better at creating a positive learning environment, promoting children's interest and enthusiasm for the activities.
Relevantly and highly educated staff are also better at addressing the needs of the children and interacting with children with disruptive behaviour. This in turn is found to decrease the level of child-child and staff-child conflict. The children show better interpersonal skills and task perseverance and are found to perform better in school readiness assessment.
Overall, the research suggests that investing in high-quality public daycare can be considered wise from a long-term societal perspective.