Outcomes of early childhood education: Literature review

Publication Details

This literature review was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to provide policy makers with a synthesis of research that analyses the impact of early childhood education (ECE) for children and families.

Author(s): Linda Mitchell, Cathy Wylie and Margaret Carr, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: May 2008

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Chapter 3: Children - Learning dispositions and social-emotional outcomes

In this section, we focus on two outcomes: learning dispositions; and more traditional measures of (lack of) confidence, respect for others, and awareness of context, such as aggression and anxiety.

Learning dispositions and key competencies are seen as combinations of ability, inclination, and sensitivity to occasion by Perkins, Jay, and Tishman (1993) and Rychen and Salganik (2003), and in Te Whāriki and the new key competencies included in the draft New Zealand curriculum. These competencies include some aspects that have formerly been thought of more in terms of "behaviour" or "social-emotional" approaches, such as social skills, the ability to work with others, and perseverance and self-control. The idea of learning dispositions goes beyond this though, by focusing on the development of identities that are positive about learning, and able to support further learning, e.g. Dweck and Leggett's (1999) work on "self-theories", and Dweck and Leggett's (1988) work on "mastery orientation". Siraj Blatchford (2004) describes mastery orientation as children tending, after a setback, to "focus on effort and strategies instead of worrying that they are incompetent" (p. 11), and problem solving. Siraj-Blatchford concludes that in order to address orientations that can lead to lower outcomes, educators are required to "take an active role in planning for, supporting and developing individual children's identities as masterful learners of a broad and balanced curriculum" (p. 11).

The term "identity" is becoming increasingly used in research that focuses on this intersection between cognitive and non-cognitive dimensions, rather than outcome, because longitudinal studies have been able to show the dynamic nature of this development. The most well known of these studies in recent times is the longitudinal work of Pollard and Filer (1996, 1999, 2000). They concluded (i) children's social development can be conceptualised in terms of "strategic biography", represented by four major dimensions of strategic action; (ii) over time, characteristic patterns of strategic action and orientation to learning tend to become established. Parents, particularly mothers, played a significant role in discussing, mediating, and helping to interpret new experiences and new challenges; (iii) the strategies are also dynamic, as learners negotiate their pathways. In particular changing power relations in a setting may enhance or threaten a child's established sense of self as a pupil; (iv) the concept of "pupil career" reflects the interplay of previous orientations and context: "it has particular consequences in terms of identity, self-confidence and learning disposition" (1999, p. 304). The children could develop new patterns of strategies or adapt familiar ones; and they drew on identities developed in the home and wider community (including early childhood experiences, informal "playgroup" for three of the children; more formal nursery school for one) in elaborating and evolving their identities as pupils (p. 301).

The authors found three principal components of the children's careers (p. 284): (i) patterns of outcomes related to the learning and social contexts of successive classrooms (together with those of the wider school and playground); (ii) patterns of strategic action developed in coping with, and acting within, these contexts, and (iii) the evolving sense of self which pupils bring to, and derive from, school, playground, and external contexts. There is a parallel here with the model of "life cycle skill formation" in the review by Cunha et al. (2005): orientations and dispositions build on earlier orientations and dispositions to develop an evolving sense of self, while the "investment" in this learning in successive contexts (e.g. the power relations and assessment methods) are significant influences. Statistical analysis of different trajectories of children's development in the Competent Children, Competent Learners longitudinal study has also shown the importance of seeing children as active in their own development, rather than simply being the effect of inputs or external forces, or reacting to their current main contexts (Wylie, with Ferral, 2005).

However, how adults perceive the outcomes of ECE can have a bearing on how children are perceived and treated within the schooling context (and thereby alter the effect of ECE experience). In a longitudinal ethnographic study, Peters (2004) followed the progress of seven case study children and their families, from the children's last months in ECE, when they were 4 years old, until the children were 8 and had been at school for three years. The author describes the transition to school as the border between different "cultures". The "dispositions, resources and demand characteristics" of the case study children interacted with features of the environment that appeared to inhibit, permit, or invite engagement. Deficit approaches, assessed by a list of basic skills, were in some cases a major focus for intervention at school, overshadowing much of the child's previous experience.

Another insight into the role of learning dispositions as outcomes comes from an ethnographic study over a period of 18 months that followed the learning pathways of 16 four-year-old children from working class backgrounds, who started school in a single reception class in school in a poor inner urban neighbourhood (Brooker, 2002). Eight of the children were "Anglo" (their parents born and educated in the U.K.; eight were from Bangladeshi homes. This research was responding to the statistics showing a growing gap between the highest and lowest achieving ethnic groups in many areas in the U.K., and asked why children from poor or minority communities have poorer educational outcomes. Four learning dispositions were important for the success of the children in this first year of school: compliance (self-regulating, takes responsibility); prosociality (interacts with peers and adults, co-operates, and collaborates); independence (selects and sustains a range of activities without adult direction); and involvement (absorbed, focused, committed, and curious).

A forthcoming publication (Carr et al., in preparation) will provide the findings from a three-year New Zealand research project that followed the learning trajectories of 25 children from five early childhood sites into their first year of school, with a specific focus on three domains of learning disposition: resilience; reciprocity; and imagination. It will document the transactional relationship between these three dispositional domains and three associated features of the learning environment in the five early childhood contexts and the children's first year classrooms.

We found 47 studies (some with more than one report) analysing relationships of ECE to the development of learning dispositions and social-emotional outcomes. Some of these were primarily concerned with the conditions under which negative or positive relationships were found. Positive relationships between ECE participation and these outcomes at the time of attendance or later, through school years were found in 25 studies. These positive effects were generally found in settings described as good quality in terms of staffing (particularly qualified staff), teacher–child interactions and communication, and close associations developed with children's families. Some small negative effects on aggression, antisocial, and worried behaviour have been reported in 13 studies. Some of these studies have analysed the impact of ECE for children with extensive out of home care experience in terms of both duration and long hours per week, usually more than 30, and compared outcomes for centres with higher and lower levels of quality. An early starting age (before age 2) and long hours in low-quality centre-based ECE were associated with negative effects.

The studies used a range of methods to measure outcomes of learning dispositions and behaviour. These include documented evidence of key competencies (e.g. narrative assessments), learning dispositions (e.g. perseverance, motivation, self-control), observations of social interactions, self-assessments by the child, and teacher and parent assessments of the child.

Learning dispositions

Learning outcomes in Te Whāriki, the national early childhood curriculum, are summarised as learning dispositions and working theories.

Intervention studies:

The three U.S. intervention studies, Abecedarian, Chicago Child Parent-Centre, and High/Scope Perry Preschool all found positive impacts of ECE on a range of key competencies and learning dispositions in the short and long term. For example, the Chicago Child–Parent Centre study found small to medium positive effect sizes from programme participation at ages 7 and 8–9 (d=0.44 and 0.33). These included social adjustment in school (d=0.33), assertive social skills (d=0.21), task orientation (d=0.21), frustration tolerance (d=0.22), and peer social skills (d=0.24); and small effect sizes on students' perceived competence. These findings indicated that participants in the intervention programme "experienced a social advantage that persisted up to four years post-programme" (Niles et al., 2006, p. 7). Long term, participants had higher social adjustment scores, and slightly lower acting out behaviours, a greater ability to tolerate frustration, less shyness/anxiety, and lower rates of emotional and behavioural disturbance placement behaviours at ages 11–13. Small effect sizes ranged from d=-0.19 (for acting out behaviours) to d=0.34 for social competency. Niles et al. pointed out that though effect sizes of around d=0.20 are "small", (e.g. for acting out behaviour), they may be practically significant to the teacher, parent, or social worker. At age 21, the programme participants had had lower rates of high school dropout, fewer juvenile arrests, and higher projected lifetime earnings than those not participating in the programme.

As Cunha et al. (2005) point out, skills that develop in the early years, both cognitive and non-cognitive, are self-reinforcing into the future, especially when followed up by facilitating environments in school and home. Hence, in the Chicago Child–Parent Centre programme, those children and parents with extended programme participation from preschool through primary school second or 3rd grade (which also involved parent participation), did better than those with less extensive participation, who in turn did better than those with no programme participation. Reynolds, Ou, and Topitzes (2004) found the main mediators of effects for higher educational attainment and lower rates of juvenile arrest for the participants were "attendance in high-quality elementary schools (school support hypothesis), literacy skills in kindergarten and avoidance of grade retention (cognitive advantage hypothesis), and parent involvement in school and avoidance of child maltreatment (family support hypothesis)" (p. 1299).

Everyday ECE:

The studies of everyday ECE found positive outcomes of ECE interacting with characteristics of individual children, ECE quality, home environment, and school environment.

Long-term effects of ECE participation on attitudinal competencies (curiosity, communication, perseverance, self-management, self-efficacy, and social skills) were found in the Competent Children, Competent Learners study linked to variables measuring the quality of the setting and the starting age in ECE. Andersson's (1992) Swedish longitudinal study found earlier age of entry to ECE was linked to social competence at ages 8 and 13.

In the short term, three New Zealand studies, the EPPE study, and EPPNI studies in England and Northern Ireland, a Canadian study, and evaluations of integrated centres in the U.K. and Canada found positive impacts on a range of outcomes, including learning orientations and dispositions.

All of these studies examined the processes and conditions under which outcomes were achieved. The EPPE and EPPNI studies each examined the impact of any preschool experience (using some similar and some different factors) versus none after controlling for child, parent, and home learning environment factors. Children with any preschool experience in the EPPE study were at an advantage on measures of "Independence and concentration", "Co-operation and conformity", and "Peer sociability" compared with those with none. Sammons et al. (2003) noted that these behaviours are likely to be important for successful adjustment to primary school. "Independence and concentration" was modestly associated with cognitive attainment at entry to school, providing evidence of linkage between learning dispositions and cognitive outcomes for this outcome. In the EPPNI study, children with any preschool experience versus none were at an advantage on "Independence and concentration", "Sociability", "Peer empathy", and "Confidence", but there were no differences between groups on "Co-operation/conformity" at the start of primary school. (The EPPE study reported on three factors only.) These studies were in different countries with quite large samples (EPPE: home children, n=304–308, preschool experience children, n=2562–2570; EPPNI: home children, n=150+, preschool experience children, n=685). It is unclear why the EPPNI study did not find significant differences on the "Co-operation/conformity" scale, since Northern Ireland services were rated as higher-quality on the ECERS-R scale, and higher rating on the ECERS-R scale is associated with this factor (Sylva et al.., 2004). The ECERs-R scale measures space and furnishings, personal care routines, language reasoning, activities, interaction, programme structure, parents, and staffing.

The EPPE study found reduced and non-significant evidence of benefits of preschool attendance versus none by the second year of schooling. The authors suggested that learning dispositions and social competence may be more influenced than cognitive outcomes by the peer group during schooling. Five studies (the three intervention studies, the New Zealand, and the Swedish study following children over time), continued to show positive gains long term. It could be that in different countries/policy settings, there may be less consistency between ECE and school settings, and thus more likelihood of fade out.


Five studies examined associations between outcomes and starting age or length of ECE experience. These suggest that more months in ECE is advantageous for some learning dispositions outcomes. Studies found an interaction between effects of duration with quality: longer duration in good quality ECE centres was beneficial, but longer duration was not beneficial in centres rated low-quality in terms of structural features (e.g. qualifications and ratios) and adult–child interactions and communication.Long term, Andersson's (1992) Swedish longitudinal study found earlier age of entry to ECE linked to social competence at age 8 (d=0.32) and 13 (d=0.66) in Swedish centres. (Effect sizes were not statistically significant because of the small sample size, but are indicative.) These authors took this to mean "early entry into day care tends to predict a creative, socially confident, popular, open and independent adolescent" (p. 33). In "excellent Montreal day care centres, over the time of attendance, an early age of entry into the present centre was associated with increased interest and participation (large effect size r=0.35), but not in low-quality centres (Hausfatheret al., 1997). The number of months spent in high-quality centres was also negatively associated with measures of apathy-withdrawal (large effect size r=0.38), but not in low-quality centres, i.e. children who had spent a similar length of time in ECE were less likely to show apathy or withdrawal if they had attended high-quality ECE. The comparisons were between children who entered day care before 12 months and those who entered later.

Length of ECE experience is not the same as starting age since some who started early had breaks in experience. Three studies indicated advantages of longer ECE experience on a range of non-cognitive and composite outcomes. In the Competent Children, Competent Learners study, at age 14, children who attended ECE for 48 months or more had significantly higher scores for attitudinal competencies (curiosity, perseverance, social skills with adults, and the composite competencies) than those who attended for less than 24 months. At age 16, the length of ECE experience was no longer significant after maternal qualifications and relevant age-5 competency had been accounted for. Both the EPPE and EPPNI studies showed children who spent more months (more than 36 months) in ECE had higher scores on non-cognitive outcomes (EPPE for "Independence and concentration" and "Peer sociability"; EPPNI for "Self regulation" at primary school entry). For social/behavioural outcomes in the second year of schooling, there was less evidence of the benefits of duration.


Studies found interactions between aspects of the quality of the ECE setting, other settings such as home, child characteristics, and learning dispositions, and composite competency scores.

Adult–child interactions, communication, and relationships with parents

The Competent Children, Competent Learners study found that children whose ECE setting was rated higher on aspects of teacher–child interaction (staff responsiveness, guidance, asking open-ended questions, and joining children in play) and opportunities for children to select from a variety of learning areas, had higher scores on attitudinal competencies when children were aged 14. Children whose centres scored lower on providing a print-saturated environment also had lower attitudinal competency scores at age 14.

At age 16, ECE staff guidance of, and responsiveness to, children had an indicative effect on social skills. Children whose final ECE centre was rated highly for staff asking open-ended questions were less likely to score highly on the measure of "social difficulties", after age-5 competency scores and social characteristics were accounted for.

In the EPPE study, quality was also measured by process measures of observed quality of the ECE environment including teacher–child interactions, and by staff qualifications and ratios. In terms of the outcomes of "Independence and concentration", "Co-operation and conformity", "Peer sociability", and "Antisocial/worried" behaviour:

  • high ECE centre ratings on measures of social interaction and language and reasoning had positive impacts on "Co-operation and conformity"; and
  • high ECE centre ratings on the positive relationships scale of the Caregiver Interaction Scale related to greater developmental gains on "Independence and concentration", "Co-operation and conformity", and "Peer sociability" and lower levels of "Antisocial/worried" behaviour at school entry.

Frequency of parental visits to the ECE centre and parent involvement in centre meetings showed positive associations with children's gains in "Independence and concentration", "Co-operation and conformity", and "Peer sociability", and reductions in "Antisocial/worried" behaviour. These findings make sense if the nature of parental involvement is focused on pedagogy. The EPPE project found that home environment measures of parents undertaking stimulating activities with their children at home were associated with developmental gains. For example, parents taking their children to the library, painting and drawing with children at home, playing with letters and numbers, and encouraging children to learn songs, poems, and nursery rhymes were all associated with gains for the child in "Independence and concentration".

Qualifications and ratios

In the EPPE study, teacher qualifications mattered. Children who attended centres where staff with higher-level qualifications spent proportionately more time with children than those with lower-level qualifications had higher ratings on "Co-operation and conformity" and reductions in "Antisocial/worried" behaviour. Conversely, children in those centres where staff with lower-level qualifications spent more time with children had poorer outcomes for "Peer sociability" and "Co-operation and conformity". The authors suggested that qualification levels may have an indirect effect on these factors through being associated with better quality of ECE provision, and perhaps through staff having better knowledge of children's social and behavioural development (with an influence on adult–child interactions and communication).

No significant associations were found between staff: child ratios and children's social-emotional gains. Sammons et al. (2003) noted that centres with less-qualified staff tended to have "more favourable" staff: child ratios, which might account for this finding. A similar lack of coherence in indicators of structural quality was also found in the Competent Children, Competent Learners age-5 report.

Participation in good quality integrated ECE centres offering extended services to children and their families was shown to be associated with measures of positive attitudes and dispositions to learning, enhanced social skills and wellbeing, and reduced number of children at risk in Bertram and Pascal's (2001) U.K. evaluation of early excellence centres and with measures of social competence in Corter et al.'s (2006) evaluation of Toronto's First Duty sites.

Contextualised analyses

Two New Zealand studies examined the ECE contexts, pedagogy, and child characteristics that contributed to learning dispositions. These are each in a single ECE setting and the impact of ECE can be gauged through tracking factors associated with learning dispositions over time.

A study of how contexts can promote outcomes that weave together the cognitive and the non-cognitive (Ramsey et al., 2006) is provided by an action research project in one New Zealand kindergarten over three years. Data showing changes in dispositions and communication competencies were documentation of children's learning over time and interviews with participants. Five action "spirals" are reported on the role of Information Communications Technology (ICT) in enhancing family participation and child outcomes consistent with Te Whāriki. The integrated and increased use of ICT in everyday pedagogic practice within the kindergarten added a mode of communication for children who had not yet learnt to read and write, and enhanced children's dispositions to use other modes of communication (visual, oral, and physical). Children's story-telling competence improved in complexity, coherence, and narrative continuity. The ECE experiences helped children to become more confident and to participate in learning situations. The experiences also encouraged children to take responsibility, collaborate with, and teach others. ICT enabled deeper connections to be made with families by providing a common language for families, teachers, and children to communicate. The study concludes that simply introducing new ICT will not be sufficient to make a difference; ICT use in ECE needs to be associated with changes to the distribution of power or responsibility, for example children being encouraged to take greater responsibility for learning, the engagement of the wider community (families), the establishment of new routines and a culture off "what we (regularly) do here", and other supporting artefacts (e.g. assessment approaches).

Another New Zealand study (Carr, 1997, 2000, 2001a, b) investigated the learning outcomes for a group of 4-year-olds as they worked in the construction area of a sessional early childhood setting. This study compared five activities as environments that encouraged (or discouraged) learning dispositions. Episodes of joint attention and negotiation about difficulty were associated with "friendship" or "technologist" intentions. Episodes characterised by performance goals (avoiding challenge, displaying ability) were associated with being "good", being appropriately a boy or a girl, or displaying appropriate "nearly school" intentions. Activities had become "homes" for these discourses or intentions. Of particular interest was the disposition to tackle and persist with challenge or mastery orientation. The research found that activities had also become "dispositional niches". Outcomes in activities where adults mostly provided support and approval, or tutorials, were characterised by performance goals and low challenge intentions. Outcomes in activities where adults provided collaboration and challenge but the initiative was still with the child were characterised by learning goals. These ideas about privileged or preferred discourses and dispositions connect with the notion that children are developing learning identities in the early childhood setting (Carr, 2001b).

Antisocial/worried behaviour

Belsky's analysis of research on non-maternal care suggests that early and extensive non-maternal care carries the risk of greater aggression and non-compliance during the toddler preschool and early primary school years, and of increasing the probability of insecure infant–parent attachment (Belsky, 2001). Much recent research on antisocial behaviour is in centre-based child care, which involves children spending time with peers in a wider group. Here there may be more opportunities for physical aggression to arise-and also more opportunities to resolve conflict (Borge et al., 2004).

As with studies of other ECE outcomes, the studies analysed in this section indicate that the question of whether ECE versus no ECE participation is associated with negative outcomes is simplistic. Contextual factors also come into play.

ECE participation versus none

Aggressive and anxious behaviour

Two studies found ECE participation increased scores for aggressive behaviour comparing children who attended ECE with those who did not (U.S. study), or comparing greater with lesser use of ECE (Quebec study). There was some indication in the U.S. study that increased aggressive behaviour was not found in higher-quality provision. The quality of provision was not measured in the Quebec study, which also found increased anxiety scores. Another Quebec study, analysing effects of non-maternal care on trajectories of physical aggression for at-risk and not at-risk children, found non-maternal care was associated with lower levels of physical aggression for at-risk children, especially those who started before age 17 months. There was no effect on children not at-risk.

Magnuson et al. (2004), using U.S. survey data with a large sample, found pre-kindergarten attendance compared with parent-only care was associated with small increased teacher reports of externalising behaviour (d=0.19 and 0.14) and decreased self-control (d=-0.12 and -0.08) at school entry. However, when pre-kindergarten programmes were located in the same public schools that children attended, there were no increases in behaviour problems. The authors noted some evidence that these pre-kindergartens are of relatively high-quality; a possible explanation for the differential findings. Externalising behaviour refers to aggressive behaviour (how frequently the child fights, argues, gets angry, acts impulsively, or disturbs ongoing activities). Absolute levels of aggression were quite low, and levels of self-control quite high. Externalising behaviour was highly negatively correlated with self-control (-0.70, p<.01).

Baker et al. (2005) reported increases in anxiety scores for 2–4-year-olds (from around 1 to 1.6) and in aggression scores (from around 1 to around 1.2), yet a decrease in hyperactivity (from around 4.2 to around 3.8), and no effect on separation anxiety following introduction of near-free ECE provision in Quebec in 1997—2000 and subsequent take-up of more hours of maternal employment (average increase from 13.7 to 20.1 hours). This study used a general database and was not a direct study of ECE influences. There are three possible reasons why the Baker et al. (2005) study was an outlier among the studies: the use of a database which does not allow analysis of effect of actual ECE experience on outcomes; possibly the specifications used for Quebec/other Canadian provinces in the difference-in-differences modelling; and low-quality of ECE in Quebec. Tougas (2002) suggests that the priority to rapidly expand places to meet demand may have overshadowed improvement of quality. Japel, Tremblay, and Côté's (2005) study of quality in 1500 daycare settings in 2000–2003, for children in the Quebec Longitudinal study of Child Development (n=2223) showed only 27 percent of these provided good or better quality; most provided adequately for health and safety, but not education. Unregulated care and for-profit care offered lower quality.

The Baker et al. (2005) study found only small effect sizes. In another Quebec study, a group of 1691 children born in Quebec in 1997–1998 were followed annually from their birth to 60 months Cote et al. (2007). The authors analysed effects of any regular non-maternal care (at least 10 hours per week) and age of entry on trajectories of physical aggression. Non-maternal care in this study was broader than early childhood education. It included any services provided by a person caring for the child other than the mother. The authors cited evidence from studies showing that maternal characteristics, especially low maternal education, are among the best predictors of high physical aggression from early childhood to adulthood. Their study found that children of low-educated mothers had significantly lower levels of risk of physical aggression if they received non-maternal care before age 17 months (large effect size d=-0.62), and after 17 months (medium effect size d=-0.38), compared with those who never received it. The authors interpreted this to mean that at-risk children are likely to have reduced exposure to family risks by attending non-maternal care. The data did not differentiate between types of non-maternal care. Non-maternal care during infancy or preschool did not have a positive or negative effect on physical aggression of children of mothers who graduated from high school (who were at less risk of physical aggression problems).

Sammons et al. (2003) reporting on the EPPE study, found no statistically significant differences between the home and preschool groups in terms of "Antisocial/worried" behaviour, but did find differences between these groups when it examined types of ECE, duration, and quality. Children in private and local authority day nurseries and children who had more than three years' preschool experience (see below) had higher levels of antisocial/worried behaviour compared with the home group. In terms of quality, local authority day nurseries were somewhere in the middle of service types.


Negative concurrent effects of long hours in child care (including any non-maternal care, thus private non-centre care) have been found in a small number of recent studies.

The large U.S. NICHD study of Early Child Care (SECC) (ECCRN, 2006) reported that children with more hours of child care per week were rated by their caregivers as showing moderately more behaviour problems at 36 months and 54 months (d=0.29 and 0.42 respectively), and more caregiver conflict with child at 54 months (d=0.40). In observations, children who had longer hours in child care exhibited somewhat more negative behaviour with peers at 54 months, adjusted for family and other characteristics (d=0.30). Care included any regular non-maternal care. More hours in care predicted at-risk but not clinical levels of problem behaviour. Hours were the mean hours per week that the child experienced between birth and assessment. On average these were: 18.2 hours per week in first 15 months; 20.1 hours per week in first 24 months; 21.6 hours per week in first 36 months; and 23.7 hours per week in first 54 months. The effects were cumulative. At 3rd grade, using comparisons of children with 10 hours per week and 30 hours per week child care, relationships between more time in centre care and externalising behaviour had decreased and was not significant (NICHD ECCRN, 2005). Children with fewer hours showed larger increases in externalising behaviour between kindergarten and grade 3. However, more hours of care were associated with poorer work habits and poorer social skills—as well as better memory—at grade 3.

Findings about the proportion of time the child was enrolled in centre care indicated that this type of non-maternal care had somewhat more positive effects than those found overall. It was related to more positive peer interactions at 54 months (d=0.21), but also to more behaviour problems at 36 months (d=0.20), and lower ratings of social skills at 24 months (d=-0.28) and 36 months (d=-0.18) according to the caregiver. These negative effects did not last to age 54 months.

The NICHD ECCRN study (Love et al, 2003) reported that the non-maternal care provisions in the U.S. were of a narrow quality range. Studies of quantity of time in care where quality was higher found different results.

Longitudinal results from the Sydney Family Development Project (SFDP) found no relationship between quantity of care and mother reported internalising, externalising, and total behaviour at 30 months and 5 years. Teacher ratings at 6 years were of a wider range of measures. Like findings for mothers' ratings of externalising behaviour, no relationships were found between teacher ratings of teacher–child conflict and quantity or type of care. However, teacher–child conflict was associated with patterns of more unstable care over time. The change in the percentage of variation accounted for that was attributed to unstable care was 3.9 percent, a small to medium effect size. Ratings of social-emotional adjustment were related to stability of care (change in percentage of variation accounted for of 3.1 percent, a small to medium effect size). Children who attended formal (i.e. higher-quality in respect to equipment, space, programming, and staff qualifications) care before 30 months were rated as more outgoing and extroverted and less shy and anxious than children whose care had been unregulated (change in percentage of variation accounted for of 6.1 percent, a medium effect size). Although quantity of care was linked to teacher ratings of competence in learning (task orientation, creativity, intelligent behaviour, distractibility), regardless of care type, competence scores were highest for children who had attended formal care for fewer hours, and lowest for children receiving more hours of informal care.

Evidence from the Early Head Start project (providing good quality centre-based infant–toddler care for children from low-income families) found that more time in child care was not associated with aggressive behaviour.

A key difference between the NICHD ECCRN (2003b, 2006) study and the SFDP and Early Head Start studies was the higher levels of quality in the latter two studies. Love et al. (2003) concluded from this evidence "that quality of child care is an important factor influencing children's development and that quality may be an important moderator of the amount of time in care, particularly when the child care contexts differ from those of the NICHD research" (p. 1031). In the SFDP study, children who had experienced less stable care were rated by teachers as having more conduct problems and less effective social skills. There was no association between social-emotional problems and quantity of care.

The studies reporting negative impacts on antisocial/aggressive behaviour of more hours in care were all studies in everyday settings reporting on impacts at the time of attendance or shortly after school entry, i.e. it was not clear if they last. Levels of quality of ECE settings are influential, with negative short-term outcomes associated with long hours in poor quality care and with less stable care.

Early starting age

In terms of length of experience, Sammons et al. (2003) found in the EPPE study that at age 3 and start of school children who had attended nurseries (with an emphasis on care rather than education) before the age of 2 had slightly higher levels of "antisocial/worried behaviour". Only a small proportion of children showed difficulties for this outcome. When a measure of preschool quality was added, the impact of duration was reduced (although still significant). The authors also found that if children with higher antisocial behaviour at age 3 attended a high-quality setting between ages 3 and 5, their antisocial behaviour decreased, and that generally, starting preschool between the age of 2 and 3 was beneficial for children's social skills with peers.

Likewise the EPPNI study found children with more group care in the first three years showed less empathy and more conduct problems, but the more months that children had attended "preschool" (an educational setting for children aged 3–5), the less conduct problems they displayed at the end of the first year of primary school. Having a leader in preschool who had a degree qualification was associated with decreased problem behaviours compared with preschools with a leader without qualifications.

Haskins (1985) and Egeland and Heister (1995), reported by Sammons et al. (2003, p. 59), found increased anti-social behaviour at 3–5 years associated with early day care, but also that this dissipated when children were 8 years or older. The NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (NICHD ECCRN, 2005) also found the relation between amount of care and externalising behaviour decreased and was not significant in the third grade, although some new associations were detected between hours of care linked to poorer work habits and poorer social skills.

A small Canadian study (Hausfather et al., 1997) reported an early age of entry into present centre was positively associated with anger-defiance (r=0.45) and negatively associated with interest-participation (r=-0.46) for children attending low-quality ECE centres, but longer exposure to high-quality ECE had no association with anger-defiance and was positively associated with interest-participation (r=0.35), and the time spent in the high-quality centre was negatively correlated with the apathy/withdrawal measure (r=-0.38). All children attended ECE full-time. A hierarchical regression analysis suggested the following factors might constitute an additive risk for aggressive behaviour: early entry to low-quality day care; stress in parenting; male gender; and life events stressful for the child.

Campbell et al. (2006) showed that both levels and patterns of aggression (increasing/decreasing) were important predictors of adjustment in middle childhood. In their study using data from the NICHD study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, even quite low aggression at 24 months that was stable was a risk for some social problems at 9–12 years, while children with moderate aggression at 24 months that was reducing appeared well adjusted at follow up. Unfortunately these authors did not include ECE experience in their analysis.

Childcare can be a protective factor for children in families with high levels of risk. Borge et al. (2004), using data on 3431 Canadian 2–3-year-olds from the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Child and Youth, found aggression was significantly more likely in high-risk families looked after by their own parents than children from high-risk families in group care. They argued the effects of home care may be beneficial or risky depending on family risk factors, and more thought needs to be given to the pattern of care for high-risk families.


Love et al. (2003) provide findings from three settings with different mixes of quality (both structural—primarily staff: child ratio, group size, staff qualifications, and process—related to staff–child and child–child interactions and kinds of learning experiences offered) and government regulations (e.g. maximums for group size or staff: child ratio). These settings, which were different from the NICHD SECC study and from each other, were Sydney in Australia, Haifa in Israel, and Head Start programmes in the U.S.).

In the Sydney study, social-emotional adjustment and teacher–child conflict were associated with stability of care: children who had experienced more changes in care arrangements (both formal and informal non-maternal care) had lower teacher ratings for their social-emotional adjustment at age 6 than others. Formal care, in centres that had to meet regulations for employing qualified staff and for programmes, equipment, and space, was positively associated with higher ratings for competencies in learning (paying attention and interest) in comparison with informal care in people's homes, where children who had longer hours of care had lower ratings for these competencies.

The Haifa study parallels the NICHD SECC study, but does not have quite the same confounding of quality of care with socioeconomic status, because it includes public centres that include children from both middle- and low-income homes. These centres have very poor caregiver: infant ratios of 1:8, and this ratio was found to be associated with a much higher proportion of insecure infants. The Head Start national evaluation also covers a different range of experience than the NICHD study, with children from low-income homes attending higher-quality programmes than their counterparts in the same community, or nationwide. This evaluation found positive associations with children's cognitive and social-emotional development and their Head Start experience, and no negative associations with large quantities of early childhood education (typically attending 30 hours a week or more, all year).

Love et al. (2003) suggest that the reason the associations found in these three studies between quality and children's social-emotional outcomes, in relation to length of care, were not apparent in the NICHD study was because of the smaller range of quality in the NICHD study centres.

Higher levels of quality than those in the NICHD study centres were offered in the U.S. early Head Start programme for low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers. Love et al.'s (2005) evaluation of early Head Start reported 3-year-old programme children displayed lower aggressive behaviour and higher engagement of their parent and sustained attention during play than controls. The strongest positive results were from an approach to service delivery that offered a mix of centre-based care and home visiting, and that implemented early in its establishment Head Start performance standards (rated on early childhood development and health services, family and community partnerships, programme design, and management).

The NICHD ECCRN (1996) found more positive caregiving for infants (aged 6 months) when group sizes and child: adult ratios were smaller, caregivers held less authoritarian beliefs about childrearing, and there were safe, clean, and stimulating physical environments.

The EPPE study found where the physical environment and space was better a decrease in "antisocial/worried" behaviour was shown. Higher scores for the centre's social interaction score on the ECERS-R subscale (which emphasises staff showing respect to children, listening to what they say, and responding sympathetically), and language and reasoning on the ECERS-R scale, and Arnett's Caregiver Interaction scale which provides measures of adult–child interaction, were associated with better social behavioural development outcomes at school entry. The study also found positive associations between a higher proportion of staff hours at a high qualification level and reductions in "anti social/worried" behaviours, but no associations with staff: child ratios per se. Staff: child ratios were confounded with qualifications in this study.

One study, (NICHD ECCRN, 2002), using structural equation modelling, found a mediated path from structural indicators of quality (teacher qualifications and staff: child ratios) through process quality to child outcomes, including caregiver ratings of social competence.

Closeness of teacher–child relationships was also associated with lower levels of problem behaviour as well as with higher levels of sociability in the Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centres study (Peisner-Feinberg et al., 1999). Effect sizes for centres rated high compared with centres rated low on the closeness of teacher–child relationships ranged from large (d=-0.92) during year 1 child care to small (d=-0.35) at second grade for problem behaviours, and large (d=1.54) during year 1 child care to medium (d=0.41) at second grade for social skills. There appeared not to be a threshold at which quality began to have a positive effect: any enhancement of quality had an impact. Peisner-Feinberg et al. (2001) found the moderating effect of quality was present for all children but stronger for children at risk.

Montes, Hightower, Brugger, and Moustafa (2005) also found that increasing the quality of centres from good to excellent was associated with a decline in low-income children's socio-emotional risk factors.

Votruba-Drzal et al.'s (2004) study of ECE experience for low-income children found positive associations between early childhood education experience and children's positive behaviour, unless the care was of low-quality. Hours in low-quality child care appeared particularly detrimental for boys' serious externalising (e.g. acting up, interpersonal skills, and self-control in the classroom) problems, and high-quality more protective for boys' serious externalising behaviour than for girls.


Learning dispositions

Learning outcomes in Te Whāriki, the national early childhood curriculum, are summarised as learning dispositions and working theories. Learning dispositions are seen as combinations of ability, inclination, and sensitivity to occasion. Learning dispositions build on earlier dispositions, are dynamic and influenced by children's participation in successive contexts, and are associated with the development of identities that are positive about learning and able to support further learning. Measures of learning dispositions are broad, and in the studies reviewed included independence, responsibility, concentration, interest, participation, resilience, curiosity, self-management, assertiveness, and social competence. Learning dispositions are a combination of cognitive and non-cognitive and are associated with success in schooling.

Positive associations between ECE participation and development of learning dispositions have been found in studies carried out in everyday ECE settings in New Zealand, England, Northern Ireland, and Canada, and intervention programmes in the U.S. Gains have been found in the short and long term, although the English EPPE study found no significant effect of participation by age 7. This may have been because of lack of cohesion between the schooling and ECE contexts.

Positive effects of ECE participation were found in settings described as good quality in terms of adult–child interactions that are responsive, cognitively challenging, and encourage joint attention and negotiation or "sustained shared thinking". The EPPE study (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2003) found excellent settings in terms of very positive social and behavioural outcomes adopted discipline/behaviour policies that involve staff in rationalising and talking through their conflicts. Studies analysing the context for outcomes that weave together the cognitive and non-cognitive also suggest greater distribution of power or responsibility to children, and engagement of families focused on pedagogical outcomes are factors supporting the development of learning dispositions and social competence. Having qualified teachers is associated with gains. Favourable staff: child ratios were not associated with gains in the EPPE study, but were confounded with teacher qualifications (those with qualified teachers tended to have less favourable ratios). There is some limited evidence that provision of good quality integrated ECE centres offering extended services to children and families is associated with positive learning dispositions and social-emotional outcomes.

We have reported on the NICHD ECCRN (2002) study finding of a mediated path between structural indicators of quality (teacher qualifications and staff: child ratios) through process quality to cognitive competence. A similar path was found between these indicators and caregiver ratings of social competence.

There is limited evidence about age of entry (before 12 months), with favourable gains for earlier age of entry being conditional on centres being of high-quality. Poorer outcomes are associated with long duration in low-quality ECE centres. Longer duration in ECE seemed associated with gains, but long duration was measured differently in studies (e.g. more than 48 months in the Competent Children, Competent Learners study, and more than 36 months in the EPPE study). In the EPPE study the effect of longer duration was stronger for academic skills than social-emotional outcomes and learning dispositions.

Antisocial/worried behaviour

Small negative effects of ECE participation on aggression, antisocial behaviour, and worried behaviour have been found in some studies at the time of ECE attendance or shortly after school entry.

A number of studies found an early starting age (before age 1 or 2) into low-quality child care was associated with higher levels of antisocial/worried behaviour at the time and at school entry. This could be tempered by subsequent high-quality ECE. Longer hours in low-quality centre care (more than 30) from an early age were associated with moderately more negative behaviour at school entry.

Consideration of the quality of the ECE experience is crucial in interpreting negative impacts. In general, children attending ECE centres where staff qualifications, programme, equipment, physical environment, and space were rated highly did not experience the same negative outcomes. Social interactions which emphasise staff showing respect to children, listening to what they say, responding sympathetically, using reasoning and talking though conflict, and closeness of teacher–child relationships are associated with better social-emotional outcomes. The moderating effect of good quality was present for all children. 


  1. Nine children were followed from their early years (age 4) to age 11 (and further follow-up is in progress). Although not about ECE services, this is a good example of research about the interface between environment and outcomes (as orientation or strategies) in the early years.
  2. A deficit approach holds to a "notion of the developing child as incomplete, a jigsaw with parts missing". The educational focus is on what children cannot do. In contrast, the educational interest in a credit model is on learning dispositions and encouraging a view of the self as a learner. This approach to learning encourages skills and funds of knowledge that the child will need to be able to participate in a domain of learning disposition. A deficit model takes a narrower view of learning (Carr, 2001, pp. 11–12).
  3. The statutory ratios in England for 3–5-year-olds were 1:13 for nursery classes (sessional), nursery schools (half-day), and integrated centres (include full-day and parent involvement), and 1:8 for local authority day care (full-day), playgroup (sessional), and private day nursery (full-day), although in reality the integrated centres tended to negotiate lower (better) ratios.
  4. Space for 4-year-olds in Quebec at $5 per day became available in 1997, for 3-year-olds in 1998, and for all children in 2000 (Friendly & Beach, 2005).
  5. For-profit centres have lower requirements to employ qualified staff (1/3, 50 percent of time, cf. 2/3 for centre-based settings where quality was higher, and similar for children from poor and privileged homes); this was not the case with other types of care, where children from poor homes were likely to be attending lower quality.
  6. The definition did not state whether paternal care was counted as "non-maternal care".
  7. This change is the difference in the percentage of variation accounted for by two models, identical except for the care characteristic of interest which is included in only one model.

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