Harvard research on care environments and outcomes for children

by Freya Lucas

November 19

The first results from a large-scale population-based study of young children’s learning and development were released last week, exploring the types of early childhood education and care (ECEC) being used by children, and how this affects their social, emotional and physical outcomes.

 

The US based Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education study, titled Early Learning Study at Harvard (ELS@H) will enable the researchers to address key questions that influence policy makers and practitioners. Of particular interest to the Australian ECEC context are the higher order questions the research seeks to answer, such as:

 

  • Which child outcomes are particularly sensitive to high-quality early learning environments (for example, vocabulary, higher-order thinking and self-regulation)?

 

  • What features of early schooling (for example, types of instruction) maintain and/or multiply the benefits of early education and care – or undermine it?

 

  • Why are some models of early learning and care rated highly and some are not, and importantly, what are those ‘key ingredients’ that can be scaled more broadly?

 

This study, the first in a series of three which has the ultimate outcome of addressing the questions raised above, found that families in higher-poverty communities were more likely to use parent-only care, and less likely to have their children enrolled in formal care settings, which correlates with Australian research regarding childcare affordability.

 

Of families in lower-poverty communities, 56 per cent used formal care only and 16 per cent used both formal and informal care. In contrast, in higher-poverty communities, 48 per cent of families used formal care only and 10 per cent used both formal and informal care. Only 19 per cent of families in lower-poverty communities relied on parent care only relative to 28 per cent of families in higher-poverty communities.

 

The patterns of early education and care use for three-year-old children were distinct from the patterns for four-year-old children. Four-year-olds were more likely to be enrolled in formal care only (58 per cent versus 46 per cent), and less likely to be enrolled in informal care only (8 per cent versus 15 per cent). Families of four-year-old children were also less likely to use parent care relative to families of three-year-old children (19 per cent versus 28 per cent).

 

Parents reported similar levels of confidence in their child’s care, regardless of setting.

 

86 per cent of parents whose child was enrolled in formal care or both formal and informal care reported being confident or very confident in their child’s care. However, parents reported similar levels of confidence when their child was in informal care (83 per cent) or parental care only (80 per cent).

 

Similar to the Australian context, the patterns of ECEC use for three-year-old children were distinct from the patterns of education and care use for four-year-old children, with four-year-old children more likely to be enrolled in formal education and care only (60 per cent versus 50 per cent), and less likely to be enrolled in informal care only (10 per cent versus 18 per cent) compared with three year olds. Families of four-year-old children were also less likely to use parent care only relative to families of three-year-olds (14 per cent versus 20 per cent).

 

Researchers hope that the detailed data collected on families, children, and settings through ELS@H will allow them to ultimately inform early education policies, practices, and investments that help meet the diverse needs of families.

 

The full report can be accessed here.

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