Does low-quality ECE lead to negative outcomes for children?

This question relates back to the inherent tension between ECE quality and access. A high quality programs can be defined as one providing a safe, secure environment offering opportunities to play and explore, with an integrated curriculum addressing all areas of development. High quality programs will provide opportunities for cognitive, social-emotional, and language skills growth, along with physical development.  On the one hand, we know that high-quality care can improve child outcomes. On the other, with a limited budget, lower-quality, cheaper programs offer care to more children. If there were clear evidence that low-quality ECE leads to negative child outcomes—or does not significantly improve outcomes—policymakers could prioritize a baseline of quality, even at the expense of additional slots, confident in the knowledge that opting for more low-quality slots would be harmful or wasteful.


However, while there is a substantial body of research that indicates that high-quality ECE leads to better outcomes for children, as compared to informal care arrangements, the literature on the impact of low-quality ECE is more limited and varied in findings. Some research may help us to better understand how and why child outcomes vary between sub-groups of children who participate in low- (and high-) quality ECE:

·        Studies of universal pre-K in both Quebec (Canada) and Norway report that some sub-groups of children who were enrolled in pre-K had negative or negligible outcomes as compared to controls.

o   Family socioeconomic status, child gender, single versus dual parents, and education level of the parents were identified as moderating variables (e.g., children from lower socioeconomic status families tended to benefit from the programs, while some of their peers from wealthier families had negative outcomes). There appear to be other factors, in addition to quality, that influence the impact of care on child outcomes, including family income, community supports, type of setting, and time spent in a program.

o   The family environment and parent-child interactions are strong predictors of a child’s cognitive and social development, and are more closely related to some measures of child development than are features of child care such as quality and quantity. The authors of the study on universal pre-K in Quebec attribute variation in outcomes at least in part to the varied impact pre-K had on home learning environments. If, as they suggest, subsets of parents (e.g., those with a high school degree versus those without) adjust their parenting practices differently in response to a new ECE program, this may explain some or all of the difference in child outcomes.

·        Researchers working with data from the Three-City Study, considering ECE and related outcomes for low-income children, write that “the quality of child care typically experienced by economically disadvantaged children is highly variable and indeed, often rated as inadequate in meeting children’s developmental needs.” While this does not clarify whether low-quality care produces negative outcomes or merely is insufficient to produce positive outcomes, it does further substantiate the importance of high-quality ECE. 

o   These researchers suggest that “center-based care arrangements, with larger group sizes, fewer adults, and frequent staff changes, may challenge young children’s self-regulatory skills and provide greater opportunities for negative peer interactions.” Recent studies have further argued that these harmful effects of center care on children’s behaviors are stronger among poor children in comparison to their more advantaged counterparts.

For some families, living in poverty may increase the risk of poor outcomes for children by exposing children to multiple risk factors, including stress, in many areas of their environment. “While most children have the resources to cope with one risk without serious developmental consequences,” say researchers, “the cumulative risk perspective suggests that the accumulation of risk across settings leaves children vulnerable to maladaptive psychosocial functioning.”

Within this framework, high quality care may provide a strong foundation for children to develop self-regulation and other helpful behavioral skills, while “low quality child care may exacerbate the existing risks children experience.” An article in The Huffington Post notes, for example, that “In the worst instances [of child care programs]… kids are exposed to serious emotional and physical hazards. A recent investigation of Mississippi child care providers by the Hechinger Report, for example, turned up reports of alleged abuse and clear safety hazards, including a center where one woman was watching over 59 young children.”

According to this article from The Atlantic, investment in high-quality preschool is not evenly distributed geographically, and high-quality programs may be hard to find for families experiencing multiple risk factors. This means children experiencing toxic stress, who are at the greatest risk, have fewer opportunities to benefit from high quality preschool.

Another consideration might be how resources would be used if they were not spent on high quality preschool programs. Where would children be, and what kinds of programs would they attend?

A recent study asks “How would children likely spend their days if these [publicly funded preschool] programs did not exist?” They conclude that although some children might find private center-based programs, “Some of these children would be cared for by parents or other relatives. Others would spend their days in informal home-based childcare programs. Unfortunately, home-based programs tend to be less stimulating cognitively and less safe physically than formal center-based programs, such as those provided in publicly funded preschools. When compared to children in center-based preschool programs, children in home-based programs spend more time watching television and less time reading with a caregiver or playing with games or puzzles. Children who attend informal home-based childcare programs develop fewer of the early academic or social skills that serve as a foundation for a successful start to elementary school.”

The Center for the Developing Child notes that young children can be adversely affected by stresses at home and “in their caregiving environment,” yet that young children can benefit from relationships with “responsive caregivers,”—and that “resilience requires relationships.” All are good reasons to ensure that as many children as possible have access to high quality early learning experiences, where well-trained (and well-paid) teachers can develop the supportive relationships children need to succeed.