Is day-care damaging for children’s socio-emotional development

A child’s development is dependent on the quality of the environments they grow up in, (Vandell, Belsky, Burchinal, Steinberg and Vandergrift, 2010). Of particular concern in developmental literature is socio-emotional development; the representation of a child’s mental health through maintaining positive relationships and understanding emotions (Matte-Gagné, Harvey, Stack, & Serbin, 2015).  Specific characteristics measuring socio-emotional development include attachment, temperament, externalising and internalising behaviour, (Claessens, 2012). The best way to ensure optimum socio-emotional development through these specific qualities was thought, until recently, to be the “nuclear family” with parents living together, father working and the mother at home, (Tyrell, 1976).

Today 87.7% of families have one or more parents in work with a higher percentage seen in single mother families at 62.3%, (Office for National Statistics, 2014). As more mothers are in work, children increasingly spend their developmental period in a non-parental environment. Non-parental care-giving environments can range from home-based (nannies, relatives or childminders) to centre-based (day-care). A day-care centre provides professional childcare of a non-residential nature which can either be part-time or full time, (Tran & Winsler, 2011).  Between 2011 and 2013 the number of children in full-time day-care in the UK rose from 948,200 to 1,050,700, (Department for Education, 2014). Day-care will pose many intervening characteristics upon socio-emotional development. Varyingre characteristics include quality of day-care, ratio of carer to children and availability and stability of the carer, (Howes, Phillips, & Whitebook, 1992).  Individual differences such as personality and temperament and background variables such as age of entry, parental education, marital status and socioeconomic status (SES) also have a bearing on development (Claessens, 2012).

Reviewing the literature of children in day-care is essential to examine long-term effects on development as previous research highlights day-care as damaging, (Baumeister, Rindermann, & Barnett, 2014; Kontos, Hsu, & Dunn, 1994). In particular, this literature review shall collate past and recent research into the effects of day-care characteristics in regards to social aspects such astachment and peer interaction and emotional aspects of externalising and internalising behaviour at different ages.


One significant factor reviewed in the literature of infants in day-care is attachment.  Indeed, Ahnert, Pinquart and Lamb (2006) found that earlier entrance meant infants formed better peer relationships at day-care, but only for children in high SES environments. Furthermore, they found that peer relationships were best in those infants who had already established a secure relationship with a parent. Those of higher SES show better peer-relations; perhaps a consequence of more cognitively stimulated home environments with higher goals for education and socialisation, (Ahnert et al, 2006). One cause for concern is the use of the strange situation with older children familiar to separation as it could yield an overestimation of insecure children, (Green, Stanley, Smith, & Goldwyn, 2000). Additionally, Ahnert et al., (2006) acknowledge the equal importance of father-child and mother-child attachment; however fathers parenting style is rarely commented on in studies.

Although it is encouraging to know that children develop better peer-relations while at day-care, this is argued to be if they are already securely attached to their parents (Ahnert, Pinquart, & Lamb, 2006).he effects of being in day-care this early can strain the parent-child relationship as Gevers-Deynoot-Schaub, & Riksen-Walraven, (2008) show children at both 15 and 23 months displayed more negative behaviour to their mothers than their caregivers. Ahnert et al., (2006) would predict that these children will suffer from worse peer-relations as a consequence of the fractured attachment to their parent; controversially, (Albers, Riksen-Walraven, & de Weerth, 2010) would suggest barriers to this as not all children follow this damaging route.

Goossens and Van Ijzendoorn (1990) clarified that not all children follow a damaging route as insecurity can be compensated by a secure relationship with a professionally trained care-giver aiding socio-emotional development. They further suggested that as attachment guides development over a lifetime, it can act as a protective barrier to harmful day-care characteristic such as poor quality, ratio or training. This review highlights that in infancy, attachment is important in developing social relationships with peers and that, in most cases, day-care can compensate for those with insecure parental relationships, however SES is a moderator.


                Attachment influences development even after the critical period of infancy. Howes et al., (1992) looked at the effects of day-care on attachment on socio-emotional development in preschool age, 14 – 54 months. As expected the majority, 51% of the children, were securely attached. However, this is lower than the public average of 70% (Ainsworth, Blehar Waters & Wall, 2014), so it is important to acknowledge the difference in day-care attachment security. igh social competence was mediated through having stable relationships with care-giver and peers, ensuring that an attachment was established. Any disruption, such as infrequent visits, had drastic effects on a child’s ability to be sociable with peers (Howes et al., 1992). However this research does not explore the outcomes of part-time day-care situations as this research would hypothesise that a child in a part-time arrangement will adopt less confident attachments and be socially incompetent.

As a child ages, their day-care situation is more than likely to alter, their time at day-care will vary and the ratio between children and carer will increase (Claessens, 2012). Claessens, (2012) compares children who are in full-time and part-time day-care. Any day-care situation was found to increase problem behaviour, such as externalising behaviour, and decrease social competence in comparison to before day-care. However, looking at the results closely it is shown that those in full-time day-care were disproportionally in lower SES families which may mean these children will be worse in peer competence initially in line with (Ahnert, Pinquart, & Lamb, 2006). Moreover, Claessens (2012) also found that changes to adult-child relationships increases negative behaviours, suggesting that multiple care systems throughout younger years (specifically in kindergarten) can be detrimental. As many parents use multiple childcare arrangements today, such as day-care, grandparents and childminders, it may be beneficial to look at the socio-emotional outcomes in future research.

Primary School 

Due to the negative outcomes with unstable care, (Claessens, 2012; Howes et al., 1992) it is important to understand how this affects children’s later development. Tran & Winsler, (2011) noted that 41% of children will experience a change in their day-care situation; it seems paramount to explore the effects unstable care has on these children’s socio-emotional development to ensure minimum disruption. Tran and Winsler, (2011) show that those who had a change in primary teacher were likely to display aggression and decreased social competence. In particular, Tran and Winsler, (2011) looked at low SES children as in one interesting study by Peisner‐Feinberg et al., (2001) it was found that low income children experience positive day-care experiences resulting in fewer aggressive and internalising behaviours, therefore it is interesting to find if this transpires into schooling. Tran and Winsler (2011) find that school aged children in low SES are particularly vulnerable in unstable care environments, so despite an early positive day-care environment, a disruption in care later can be detrimental to their normal development. This study has particularly positive implications for intervention as it shows it is not beneficial if day-care centres regularly switch their staff. Therefore day-care centres can manage staff betterr children’s optimum development.

Following on from Ahnert et al.’s (2006) research on early admission and positive socio-emotional development, Andersson (1989) looked at the longer-term effects of attachment in day-care on socio-emotional development. Anderson (1989) found that earlier entrance to day-care within the 1st year, post 6 months, were more independent and presented less problematic behaviours at 8 years than those enrolled in day-care post 1 year. As this study was conducted in Sweden, it would be interesting to see if these results are replicated in multiple cultures. One difference between Sweden and other cultures is that the same day-care is available to all families regardless of SES which may relieve financial stressors and other confounding factors on presenting negative behaviour. One thing to note when reviewing the literature of socio-emotional development in middle childhood from a day-care background is that they may still be in non-parental care such as after-school club. Therefore the effects of day–care are ongoing and the behaviours noted are not necessarily long-lasting.

Secondary School

Andersson (1992) looked later on into the same student’s lives when they were 13 years old, in secondary school. This longitudinal overview is ideal to understand the true long-term effects of day-care in childhood. At 13 years old social competence was predicted by early entrance; however this was not found at 8 years old. At 8 years old children are still maturing socially and perhaps the positive predisposition of day-care is not evident until social maturity is reached. Looking at social competence can be difficult as measures are not universal and so subject to cultural opinions. This study used teacher-ratings for social competence, again open to significant biases.

A later study looked even further into middle childhood at 15 years old with students heading into college or a job, (Vandell, Belsky, Burchinal, Steinberg, & Vandergrift, 2010). Those who had experienced poor quality day-care were more likely to display externalising behaviours, leading to higher risk-taking and impulsivity at 15 years old than those in high quality day-care (Vandell et al., 2010).  Vandell et al., (2010) is extending this study to 18 years old in the near future so it would be interesting to explore these later results. Overall from these later studies it seems that negative effects from day-care are not long-lasting and in some cases help children in social situations.


The way day-care is used today is quite different to what is represented in the research. Due to growing expense many parents are opting for part-time day-care, part-time nanny or relative care to split the cost (Department for Education, 2014). This disruption to a consistent carer could cause problems for attachment increasing the risk of more externalising behaviours and decreased social competence (Tran and Winsler, 2011). It is important to note difference in cultures, for example Swedish parents have paid leave for the first 18 months of their newborn (Andersson, 1989) compared to those in America where paid leave is for just 3 months (Tran and Winsler, 2011). Both of these scenarios will have differing effects on the use of day-care and subsequently how this effects the development of the child. Methods should be adopted from Swedish day-care centres as children enrolled here display very positive socio-emotional development. Furthermore, culture differences arise in family backgrounds with differences in how children are parented after day-care and the father’s interaction with the child, which is scarcely researched.

Overall, in infancy it is shown that optimum socio-emotional development in day-care is reached when the children are securely attached to their parents (Ahnert et al., 2006), or otherwise attached to their caregiver or peers (Goossens & Van Ijzendoorn, 1990) as it acts as a protective barrier to damaging day-care characteristics. To enable optimum socio-emotional development beyond attachment, a day-care must be good quality (Vandell et al., 2010), have consistent caregivers (Tran and Winsler, 2011) and children starting day-care early (Ahnert et al., 2006). Overall with the right day-care characteristics socio-emotional development is not damaged, if they are damaging then it is reassuring to know these effects disappear at school.


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