23 September 2009

High-Quality Early Care Promotes Social, Emotional and Cognitive Development In At-Risk Young Children

Eighty percent of brain development occurs in the first three years of life, and early environments can encourage or impede effective cognitive growth. Science affirms that residing in poverty means more than economic hardship for infants and toddlers- young children raised in impoverished households lack access to crucial resources needed for optimal social, emotional and cognitive development. Unfortunately, child poverty is on the rise in Memphis- from 2003 to 2007, the percentage of children living in impoverished families rose from 35 to 42 percent (The Urban Child Institute [TUCI], 2009).

However, researchers may have found a potential equalizer: high-quality early care and education. For our youngest at-risk kids, attending an enriching early care program may be enough to negate the impact of vulnerable home environments and present them with the framework needed for academic success. According to Boston College professor Eric Dearing, whose team evaluated data of more than 1,300 children in 10 regions across the United States, “even minimal exposure to higher-quality child care at times was enough to offset the deprivation often encountered when growing up poor” (West, 2009, p. 1).

Dearing suggests that the advantages of high-quality early care were seen in most children, no matter their socioeconomic status; however, the observed impact became more significant as the family income levels dropped. The study results also suggest that the effect of high quality care increases with exposure—the more time spent in an educational setting, the better.

What is high-quality early care? The study team, which includes researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Samford University, defines “higher quality” day care as environments that provide better than typical personal care, cognitive engagement and emotional support to infants and toddlers. Effective early care, Dearing suggests, should not be mistaken for the exclusive programs usually located in wealthy neighborhoods. Instead, top-notch early care can be provided in a setting as familiar as a grandparent’s house or as standardized as a traditional community day care center.

Low-income families, just like wealthier families, need caring child care environments while parents are on the job or attending school; however, impoverished families are typically obliged to utilize inferior care because they have few options. Although the study did not make targeted suggestions on how to enhance early care in poor environments, the researchers implied the need to better inform families on how to access high-quality early care and dispense increased public funding of education initiatives for children less than five years of age. The findings from the assessment appear in the September/October issue of Child Development.

For more information of the well-being of children in Memphis and Shelby County, please visit The Urban Child Institute website at http://www.theurbanchildinstitute.org/Home.


The Urban Child Institute. (2009). The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County: DataBook. Memphis, TN: The Urban Child Institute.

West, P. (2009, September 16). Better day care, smarter kids? Yahoo News!: HealthDay Reporter.

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