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Informal and Formal Child Care Focus of New Harvard Study

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Several research papers have dug into the effects of child care and prekindergarten on young children, from the venerable Perry Preschool study that tracked participants into middle age, to newer research on programs such as those in Boston and in Tennessee.

But millions of children aren't enrolled in formal child care or preschool programs; they're being watched through informal arrangements their parents may have set up with friends or relatives. And of those children who are attending licensed programs, only a portion—a 2006 government report estimated well under 50 percent—are believed to be enrolled in programs that offer "a lot" or "a fair amount" of positive caregiving.

Researchers at Harvard University are launching a longitudinal study to figure out just what all these different care arrangements mean for children. Instead of focusing solely on the results for children enrolled in a specific child-care or preschool program, the Early Learning Study at Harvard will include in its analysis the informal child-care arrangements that parents often must rely on.

"One of the challenges with our current evidence base is we don't have enough information about the formal as well as the informal settings," said Nonie Lesaux, a professor of education who is leading the research with fellow Harvard education professor Stephanie Jones. 

Lesaux and Jones say that they aren't going in with the assumption that informal child-care arrangements are automatically inferior to formal child care.

"The key ingredients that we're looking at are interactions and relationships. I don't think we have any reason to argue that a formally licensed place is higher on those levels," Lesaux said.

Research to Examine What Works for Young Children

The research team has randomly selected more than 100 local communities throughout Massachusetts for the study. Ultimately, it will include 5,000 children ages 3 and 4, and the families will be followed for four years and assessed periodically. The aspiration is to track these children into adulthood.The team estimates that 40 percent of young children in Massachusetts are in informal care settings, Jones said, but the first step in the research will be a household survey to get a better idea of those numbers.

By the early fall, the team will begin its first wave of data collection. "We'll talk with families about their experiences, meet with children, do one-on-one activities, and talk with their care providers," Jones said.

Ultimately, the findings should inform policy discussion based on the real-life experiences of children, Lesaux said, and researchers should have a better idea of what goes into a quality program for children, no matter who is providing it.

"The science has to match childrens' and families' daily lives and their demographics, but we're not there yet," she said. "We need a study that captures not a slice of children, but all the types of settings they're in."

And the research also hopes to be able to tackle the thorny question of prekindergarten "fade out:" a finding in several studies that the positive benefits of prekindergarten appear to disappear by the time participants reach 3rd grade. 

"Right now we don't know enough about the key ingredients of high-quality early learning in 21st-century contexts," Jones said in an article about the research published by the university. "We need to learn more about what has to be there, what can be scaled, and what can be tailored to fit the local context, without compromising on those outcomes."

The research is supported by the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative. Zaentz, the late record and movie producer, donated $35.5 million to the university for advancing early-childhood education.

Education Week File Photo: Lora Reyes, a licensed family child-care educator, reads to children who attend the child-care center she operates out of her home in Westfield, Mass.—M. Scott Brauer for Education Week



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