Education And Aggression

by Diane W. Bales, Ph.D.
Human Development Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
The University of Georgia

Are children who spend more than 30 hours per week in child care more aggressive than children who spend little or no time in out-of-home care? Recent news coverage of the NICHD national child care study has suggested this. But parents who place their children in child care may not need to feel as guilty as the reports have suggested. The news is not all bad. In fact, there are some clear positive effects of high-quality child care program in this study.

As sometimes happens, the details of this research study have gotten lost in the translation by popular media. Here are some of the major findings from this study, as well as more detail on the results related to aggression.

Child Care Quality Matters

The quality of child care does make a difference. Children in high-quality care are less likely to be aggressive than are children in lower-quality care. Children in high-quality programs also tend to develop better language and thinking skills. Parents can find high-quality child care settings by looking for things like small adult-to-child ratios; well-trained, sensitive, and responsive caregivers; and a setting that provides stimulation and teaches children how to solve problems and resolve conflicts.

Hearing Language Helps Build Language

Children who hear more reading and talking in their child care settings tend to do better on language tests at ages 4 and 5. Parents and caregivers can help children learn language by asking questions, responding to and expanding on what children say, and reading and singing with children. And limit the amount of time children watch TV. Children who spend more time watching TV tend to have smaller vocabularies.

Parents Matter, Too

Children who receive loving care at home are less likely to show problem behaviors, even if they are in full-time child care. Children need parents who are warm and responsive to their needs, who spend regular time interacting with them, and who set consistent, age-appropriate limits.

What Does the Study Really Say About Aggression?

"Aggression" is a hot topic for parents and society as a whole these days. Several high-publicity school shootings have led parents to worry about violent teens. And it's true that the roots of violence often can be traced back to early childhood. What many parents don't understand is that this study does not prove that long hours in child care cause children to be more aggressive. The study found that somewhat more children in full-time child care showed aggressive behaviors than did children in child care fewer than 10 hours per week. But even among children in full-time child care, only 17% - fewer than 1 in 5 children - showed aggressive behaviors. And the percentage of children in full-time care who were aggressive is the same as the percentage of all children who are aggressive. So children in full-time child care do not show abnormally high levels of aggression, compared to children in general.

It is also important not to misinterpret the relation between time in child care and aggression. Although the study did show a link between hours in child care and aggression, this does not mean spending time in child care causes children to be more aggressive. Several other explanations are possible. It is possible, for example, that children who spend more time in out-of-home care were more aggressive even before they entered child care.

Consider also that social skills are as important in preparing for kindergarten as are thinking and language skills. Too many adults think that children who can count and recite the alphabet are ready for school. But children in school must also get along with others, negotiate, and resolve conflicts. Children who learn problem solving and conflict management in early childhood will be better prepared to handle the social world of kindergarten and will be less likely to handle their problems aggressively.

The bottom line is that warm, loving adults who talk with, listen to, and care about children do help those children succeed. Parents and child care providers need to work together to be sure that children have the high-quality care they need, whether at home or elsewhere.