What factors of child care matter to children's development?

Child care experts have described in clear detail the structural, procedural, and interactive factors that are important for early child care (e.g., Friendly & Beach, 2005). Knowledge about child care quality often comes from child development theory, from observation, and from the experience of caring for children. CCKM’s Research Guide adds to this descriptive and experiential knowledge the results of studies that directly measured the relationship of child care quality to outcomes of children’s development.

The relationship of overall quality of child care to children’s cognitive, language, and behavioural development was examined in 45 (68%) of the 66 research reports. All 45 articles measured quality of child care in the home or centre as a composite of many different features of care, but the researchers did not all use the same measuring tool.

Most studies of child care centre quality (60%) used the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS), first published in 1980 by Dr. Thelma Harms and her colleagues, or its version for infants and toddlers (ITERS). The ECERS assesses a range of child care features, including space and furnishings, personal care routines, language-reasoning, activities, interaction, program structure, and parents and staff.

During work time hours, parents more frequently place their children in the homes of others than in child care centres. The Family Day Care Rating Scale is designed to measure the quality of care in family home settings and as a counterpart to the ECERS centre assessment protocol. The two tests are similar in structure, but the FDCRS does not contain items that would apply only to centre facilities. To obtain high scores on the FDCRS, home day care setting must reflect standards for cognitive, language and social learning opportunities that are professional and beyond custodial care.

The Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment (HOME), first developed by Dr. Betty Caldwell in 1970, was used to measure both parental and non-parental home care. It assesses the degree to which the home provides emotional support and cognitive stimulation.

The Observational Record of the Caregiving Environment (ORCE), published in 1996 by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was used in almost 18% of the articles. The ORCE focuses on only the caregiver’s frequency and quality of behaviours toward children. Because the ORCE evaluates the caregiver and not the physical and material features of the environment, it can be used in any setting, the child’s own home, the home of another caregiver, or a centre. The Belsky and Walker Spot Observation Checklist (1980) is similar to the ORCE in its focus on the socio-emotional relationships between child and caregiver.


Most Frequently Used Tools for Measuring Child Care Quality
# of Reports 27 3 9 8 4 6

Go to Tools to learn more about the 23 scales used in the 45 reports to measure quality of care.

Quality of Child Care

The 45 reports directly evaluated the relationship of child care quality on children’s cognitive, language, and/or behavioural development. The reports produced 210 individual results. Most results demonstrated that higher child care quality is linked to better cognitive and language development. Children’s behaviour, assessed as features of social competence, emotional maturity, aggression, acting out, compliance, and so forth, primarily resulted in either null relationships or positive relationships to child care quality.

In some reports, the importance of quality of child care was examined by conducting many assessments of the children’s development, and in other reports there were only one or two assessments. Therefore, some reports are represented more frequently in the bar graph than others.

To evaluate the relationship of child care quality to children’s development without the influence of multiple tests of the same category of development in the same report, we gave each report only one credit for demonstrating or not demonstrating that quality of child care was related to children’s development. When the results of a series of repeated tests and subscales were mixed (positive, null, or negative) in a single report, the report was coded as “maybe.”

Is Higher Quality Child Care Related to Better Child Development?
  Yes No Maybe
Total # of Reports 39 5 1


Relationship of Quality to Children's Development

  Cognition Language Behaviour
% of Positive Reports 96% 94% 72%
# of Reports 23 18 27
Some reports tested the relationship of child care quality to more than one category of development

The results based on individual tests (+, 0, -) and the results based on articles are quite similar. Consequently, one can conclude with some confidence that better child care quality is related to better achievements in cognitive, language, and behavioural development. A few studies demonstrated that the effects of better quality preschool lasts through school age (Grades 4 and 6).

Is the impact of child care quality more evident in some children than others? Of the 45 reports that studied quality of child care, only 4 asked this question directly. One compared White, Hispanic, and African American children and found that the quality-to-development relationship was equally important to all three groups. One article reported that the relationship was more important to boys, and two found that the relationship more important to children who were at greater risk for cognitive and language delays. One article reported that the development of children from more advantaged homes (e.g., income, parental education) was not buffered from the negative effects of poor quality child care.

What type of child care is higher in quality, home or centre? Of the 45 reports that studied quality of care, only 10 asked this question directly. Of those that did, 7 found that the quality of care in centres was better than the quality of care in home settings and related to better outcomes of children’s development. Three reports found no differences. As compared with care given in homes, centre care is more likely to be regulated with guidelines for facilities, teacher education, adult child ratio, and class size, and to be less variable.

Knowing that there is a positive relationship between quality of care and children’s development, and knowing that the relationship holds well across the 45 reports is not the same as knowing the strength of the relationship. In other words, does increasing quality of care meaningfully increase children’s development and over and above other possible influences? Researchers working with large datasets have answered this question in various ways and have arrived at similar conclusions. The impact is modest but meaningful even after statistically removing countless other family and child variables known to influence the course of children’s development (Vandell & Wolf, 2000). The results of quality care were greater in magnitude when measured in experiments in which the conditions of child care are controlled and children are randomly assigned to different conditions. In such experiments, the impact of quality of care is measured directly instead of being estimated through statistical manoeuvres amongst other non-randomised factors.

In summary, quality of child care matters to children’s cognitive, language, and behavioural development whether the child care is given by the parent, or by an unrelated caregiver in a centre or in a home. Better child care quality links to better children’s development. Results are based on composite measures of quality of care. An informal survey of results of the 66 reports suggests that no one quality measuring tool (e.g., ECERS versus the ORCE) seemed more likely than another to demonstrate a positive relationship with child development.

Highlights of a report on child care quality.


In addition to the composite factor of quality of child care, researchers sometimes assessed the relationship to child development of two specific factors thought to make child care more effective: teacher education and training, and adult-child ratio and class size.

Teacher Education


Teacher education refers to number of years of post-secondary school completion including special courses in early childhood education sometimes referred to as “training”. Of the 13 reports, 5 reports measured only years of teacher education, 3 reports measured only level of teacher training, and 5 reports combined teacher education and training in a teacher quality rating scale. However defined in the report, teacher education and/or training were related to better child development. Of the 48 individual measures represented in the bar graph, one subtest of one cognition measure in one study reported a negative influence of teacher training. Most of the 13 reports concluded that caregiver education and training is related to better children’s development.



Relationship of Teacher Education and/or Training to Cognition, Language, or Behaviour
  Cognition Language Behaviour
% of Positive Reports 70% 73% 71%
# of Reports 10 11 7
Reports studied relationships of teacher education/training to more than one category of development


Adult-Child Ratio

Sixteen of the 45 reports assess adult-child ratio and class size but in varying ways.  Some reports assessed only one adult-child ration or class size. Some reports measured both adult-child ratio or class size. Some reports measured both child-adult ratio and class size but then combined them in a composite score. Some reports discussed child-adult ratios but data were displayed as adult-child ratios, or the obverse. Some reports measured adult-child ratios and class size but coded them as a dichotomy in meeting or not meeting jurisdictional guidelines. For summary purposes we combined the results under the rubric of adult-child ratio. Therefore, the data represented in the figure and table are summations across any representation of the number of adults relative to the number of children and/or class size.

Of the 77 individual measures of the relationship of adult-child ratio to children’s development, most showed null effects. The positive relationships, seen more frequently with respect to language development, indicate that better scores on language tests are associated with higher adult-child ratios (more adults per children).

Relationship of Adult-Child Ratio and Class Size to Cognition, Language, or Behaviour
  Cognition Language Behaviour
% of Positive Reports 50% 80% 80%
# of Reports 10 10 10
Reports studied relationships of teacher education/training to more than one category of development

Ten reports each compared adult-child ratio and/or class size to children’s cognitive, language, and behavioural development. Note that each category does not contain the identical reports; consistency in number (10) is coincidental. One report assessed only cognition and behaviour and another report only language. All but one report indicated either a positive or null relationship with children’s development. One report assessed all three categories of development and found that larger class size in the infant-toddler period was correlated with higher PIAT-Reading scores in childhood.


Higher quality of child care is closely tied to better cognitive, language, and behavioural development. The relationship holds when child care quality is measured as a composite factor by different assessment scales (e.g., ECERS, ORCE) that measure different components of child care quality. Two structural components of child care, teacher education/training and adult-child ratio/class size, are also tied to better development.

Go to Scorecards for the results of each report or continue on to What are the implications of the results?


    2006 © Canadian Centre for Knowledge Mobilisation