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Several studies find evidence that children who spend long hours in child care exhibit somewhat higher
levels of aggressive behavior in the first few years of school. This effect is small, and its practical importance
is unclear. The problem may be largely avoidable by providing better education in child care, though this
aspect of curricular improvement does not appear to be captured by commonly used measures of child
care quality. Moreover, the broadest research indicates that even when this mild negative effect is present
it is accompanied by positive effects on other aspects of social and emotional development as well as
positive effects on cognitive development. There is some evidence that typical child care over the first
5 years of life can have modest negative effects on social and emotional development that persists
into elementary school, in the form of behavior problems, less social competence and poorer schoolwork
The NICHD Study of Early Child Care.57 The NICHD Study of Early Child Care followed the development
of over 1,200 children from 10 sites across the country. Families were recruited for participation through
hospital visits shortly after the birth of a child in 1991, and the children’s social behavior was subsequently
assessed at 15, 24, 36, and 54 months, as well as early in their kindergarten year. Mothers, teachers, and
child care providers rated children’s behavior, and researchers observed the children’s interactions with
peers. Results suggested that a small percentage (less than 20 percent) of the children who spent a lot of
time (at least 30 hours per week) in non-maternal child care arrangements were more noncompliant and
Promoting Children’s Social and Emotional Development Through Preschool [10]
aggressive than their peers at 54 months of age and in kindergarten. This relationship held even when the
effects of quality, type, and stability of child care and maternal sensitivity were controlled for through
statistical modeling. Nevertheless, additional analyses revealed that the persistent effect of duration on
aggression was fairly small—smaller than the effects of children’s socioeconomic status and the maternal
sensitivity of their mothers.
Some researchers have suggested that the NICHD link between aggressive behavior and long hours in
child care may be easily explained and may not be problematic.58 The proportion of children in the high
duration of care group who show higher levels of problem behaviors does not exceed the proportion of
children in the national population as a whole who display the same frequency of these behaviors, so child
care is not increasing the number of aggressive children that otherwise exists in the population at-large.
Instead, it is possible that the increased aggression emerges when children first spend substantial time
in large-group settings. For the children in long-term care, their exposure begins earlier, so the higher
aggression levels emerge earlier. When their agemates are exposed to substantial time in large-group
settings, their levels of aggressive behavior will increase too, so that, in the end, preschool participants
will not display more aggression than agemates.


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