More social with fewer emotional difficulties, sick more often
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > More social with fewer emotional difficulties, sick more often

More social with fewer emotional difficulties, sick more often

by Freya Lucas

September 21, 2020

The latest Growing Up in New Zealand research has found that children who attend early childhood education and care (ECEC) have fewer emotional difficulties and better peer relations, but are more prone to illnesses.  


The AUT and The University of Auckland research was commissioned by New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development’s Children and Families Research Fund, and was conducted prior to COVID-19 and the health and hygiene measures put in place in reaction to the pandemic.


To reach their findings, researchers examined parental reports of children’s ECE attendance, child behaviour and illness from the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study, which is following the lives of more than 6,000 children born in 2009 and 2010. 


Parental responses gathered when children were aged nine-months, two-years and four-and-a-half years of age was then linked to hospital records, finding that parents assessed their four-and-a-half year old children’s behaviour more positively if they attended ECEC, and that these children were perceived to have better relationships with their peers than those not attending early childcare. 


Co-author Associate Professor Andrew Gibbons said the findings suggest that centre-based childcare can have some benefits to emotional and social wellbeing, “but we need more research to tease that out.”  


“It’s important to further understand the effects of different types of early childhood education, teacher-child ratios and license size, teacher qualifications and working conditions,” he added. 


Fellow author, University of Auckland Research Fellow Dr Sarah Gerritsen says while ECE was found to be associated with social benefits, it did increase children’s risk of some common infectious illnesses.


For example, nine-month-olds in centre-based care had twice the risk of ear and chest infections compared with infants who were cared for primarily by their parent or other carers such as a grandparent or a nanny. They were also 2.5 times more likely to have gastroenteritis than infants in parental care.


Two-year-olds attending childcare centres had 2.2 times the risk of ear infection, 1.8 times the risk of chest infection and 1.5 times the risk of gastro infections compared to children cared for at home.


The research also found that being in centre-based care as an infant, or attending ECEC for more than 30 hours a week at the age of two-years, were both associated with increased risk of hospitalisation due to an infection. 


Dr Gerritsen said that while there is evidence that infections in early childhood can provide immunity against illnesses later on, some of the infections observed as part of the study were considered serious, with one in eight preschoolers attending childcare having been admitted to hospital with a chest, ear or gastro infection.


However, she continued, the increased hygiene measures now carried out in ECEC services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic may mean the results would be different if the study was carried out today. 


“It is a good reminder of the need for public health agencies to work closely with the early learning sector to reduce the spread of infections,” Dr Gerritsen added.


The report, Is participation in Early Childhood Education related to child health and development?, outlines several policy implications, including:


  • Centre-based care at two-years of age may have benefits for children’s emotional wellbeing and relationships with peers.
  • The hours per week spent in early childcare at age two do not appear to impact on behavioural outcomes and around 20-30 hours/week may even be positive for emotional development and wellbeing.
  • Centre-based ECEC services should be aware of the increased risk of common childhood infectious illness for infants and toddlers and are strongly encouraged to follow regular handwashing with soap and to keep sick children away.
  • Delaying the start of ECEC until after the first birthday may help to avoid serious childhood infections and the prescribing of antibiotics and hospitalisation in infancy.
  • Childcare centres and government policy should support and enable mothers to continue breastfeeding for as long as possible to aid the immune system in infancy. 


Associate Professor Gibbons spoke about the considerable research on the effects of early childhood education on child behavioural outcomes and illnesses which has been undertaken globally, saying it was “good to have some relevant New Zealand-based research to inform decision-making about ECEC” in a New Zealand context.


He encouraged further debate in this space to consider other elements, such as the prioritisation of funding, the targeting of participation rates, the increasing average weekly hours of attendance, and the recently published Early Learning Action Plan


“Optimistically, these findings suggest that early childhood services may contribute positively to the complex task of supporting young children’s healthy relationships with themselves and their peers,” he said, noting that the research “provides an important evidence base for the early childhood sector to further develop services to best meet the health and development needs of New Zealand’s children.”  

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