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2014 report

Good relationships between children and adults in childcare centres may prevent language and learning difficulties

A 2014 report from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health examines how variation in quality of Norwegian centre-based childcare is related to mental and linguistic functioning in children. The results show that children with good relationships to the adult caregivers in centre-based childcare also have better language and psychological development than those children with poor caregiver relationships.

Rapport 2014:1.jpg

Other measures of Norwegian centre-based childcare quality, such as pedagogic practices, access to material resources, staff size and group size, seem to have little impact on children's linguistic and psychological functioning at five years.

The report was the second in a series related to centre-based childcare research in the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study and looks at the relationship between childcare quality and children's functioning at the age of five. It is based on questionnaires completed by parents and educational directors in centre-based childcare for over 4,000 five-year-olds nationwide.

Commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Education, the reports are only available in Norwegian but here is a summary of this report's findings in English. 

Main findings: 

  • The relationship between a child and an adult caregiver at centre-based childcare is related to both the linguistic and psychological functioning of the child. The strongest association was between positive child-caregiver relationship and adaptation and school readiness in children.
  • Educational quality in centre-based childcare (for example, process-related elements such as having a daily schedule, what type of educational practice is followed and routine mapping of development and milestones) explains little of the variation in children's linguistic and psychological functioning.
  • Structural quality in centre-based childcare (such as group size, staff stability and access to teaching materials) also does little to explain the variation in children's linguistic and psychological functioning.
  • Neither the age of introduction to centre-based childcare nor the number of hours a child spends in centre-based childcare correlates particularly strongly with linguistic and psychological functioning.
  • About 23 per cent of the children in this study have some kind of difficulty (such as a health problem or a developmental difficulty, or they have been referred to a specialist for some reason) as reported by the centre-based childcare educational director or mother, or both.

Correlations between centre-based childcare quality and children's development and functioning are weak. Only very weak correlations were found between nearly all indicators of quality and children’s functional measurements. The strongest correlation was found between different functional measures in children and the relationship between adult caregivers and children in centre-based childcare.

“This correlation may potentially be explained as such: high-functioning children with good language skills are better able to forge good relationships with their adult caregivers, or that a good relationship can have a positive effect on the child's functioning,” says Mari Vaage Wang, one of the researchers behind the report.

“The results suggest that attending Norwegian kindergartens has neither a strong positive nor a strong negative effect on children's linguistic and psychological functioning. Although international research has shown that poor quality centre-based childcare may be related to impairments in children, there is nothing in our results to suggest that this is the case for Norwegian centre-based childcare. This may be due to the fact that Norwegian centre-based childcare is, on the whole, good enough to not impact children negatively,” says Wang.

Many children with disabilities

The results also showed that parents and centre-based childcare educational directors report various health and developmental problems in 23 per cent of children. Ellinor Major, Director of the Division of Mental Health at NIPH, is surprised by this finding.

“It is surprising to see that so many children have difficulties. The difficulties can be anything from poor hearing to behavioural problems, and we know little about the severity. It will be very interesting to follow these children over time, and to gain a better understanding of the importance of these findings,” says Major.

Limitations of the study

A main limitation of the study is that it is not possible to determine a causal pathway. The researchers measured children's functioning and centre-based childcare quality at the same time interval, and therefore cannot report on which may have come first. As a result, it is not known whether a good relationship with an adult caregiver may lead to good development and functioning.

It is also important to be clear that the strongest associations were found when the centre-based childcare educational director reported both on his or her relationship to the child, as well as on the child's linguistic and psychological functioning. The association between child-caregiver relationship and the child’s functioning is stronger where educators report on the child’s functioning, as compared with parental reports of the child’s functioning, however the parental reports uphold findings of this association, only to a slightly lesser degree.

The results in this report, while extensive, are not comprehensive and there may be qualities of Norwegian centre-based childcare that are not measured in this study, but may yet affect child development, either negatively or positively. There is also no comparison made between children who attend centre-based childcare and children who are looked after at home or in other childcare settings.