Annual Report 2007‚Äď2008

Child care quality

This section is an edited extract from a paper published in Family Matters no. 79, "Does child care quality matter? Associations between socio-emotional development and non-parental child care in a representative sample of Australian children", by Linda Harrison, Charles Sturt University.

Questions about the possible associations between young children's experience of non-parental child care and their socio-emotional development have intrigued researchers, parents and policy makers for decades. Growing Up in Australia is examining key factors in the home and external environment that influence children's socio-emotional development over the early years. Non-parental child care is a key environment for the vast majority of study children and their families.

In this report, Wave 2 data are used to investigate relationships between 2-3 year old children's attendance at child care and aspects of their socio-emotional development are examined for different types of child care and for care of differing levels of quality.

Experiences of non-parental child care

Just over 70% of 2-3 year old children were reported to be attending child care and the remaining 30% did not receive any regular non-parental child care. The most frequent child care situation for children was attendance at long day care centres or family day care homes, that is, settings that are classified as formal, government-accredited and/or regulated types of care (41%). A smaller number of children received care only from relatives, friends, sitters or a nanny (15%), which are classified as informal, non-accredited, unregulated types of care. Additionally, 13% attended a mix of formal and informal care settings each week.

Quality of care

Quality is conceptualised in the literature as encompassing the features of child care that are beneficial to children's wellbeing, learning and development. Broadly, these cover the structural features of the program (aspects that are partially governed by regulations, such as caregiver qualifications, group size and ratios of children to adults) and processes (the recurring patterns and interactions that occur between children, staff and parents). Structural features are seen as providing the underlying conditions to support process components of good quality, which include positive care-giving behaviour and child-caregiver interactions, as well as management features that affect staff commitment, satisfaction and stability.

Information on quality was collected at the level of the room or group where the study child spent most time. Mail-back questionnaires were completed by 1,676 caregivers, of whom 68% worked in centre-based child care settings, 12% were family day care providers, and 19% provided care in informal home-based settings. The majority of the informal caregivers were grandparents of the study children (14% of all caregivers in the sample).

Structural features of the program were described by demographic characteristics of the child's caregiver, including age, years of experience and level of educational achievement or qualification. Field of study was also collected for caregivers with post-secondary qualifications. Group size was used as an indicator of quality. Smaller groups are felt to be particularly important for younger children, who need greater support from caregivers to manage their emotions and learn to use prosocial behaviour with peers.

Practice features of the program were described by two factors: active engagement in play, which included four items assessing carers' involvement with children in play, direct teaching and focused interaction; and organisational focus, which consisted of four items relating to routine care and organisational features of caregivers' work.

Socio-emotional development was measured via parents' and caregivers' ratings on a scale that assesses social competence and behaviour problems.

Comparisons of children receiving and not receiving regular non-parental child care

Initial analyses compared parent-reported social competence and behaviour problems for children attending or not attending regular non-parental child care. Results showed small but significant differences in ratings for the two groups. Children receiving regular child care were rated by their parents as being more socially competent and having fewer behaviour problems than children not receiving child care.

Further analyses compared four groups of children, according to the type of care received: formal care (long day care and family day care), informal care (relatives, nanny and friends), mixed formal and informal care, and not attending care. For social competence, higher ratings were reported for children receiving regular child care in mixed formal and informal settings compared to children who were not in child care. Fewer behaviour problems were reported for children receiving regular child care in informal settings or mixed formal and informal care settings than for children who did not attend child care. A further difference was noted within the group of children receiving regular child care: behaviour problems were higher for children attending formal care settings and lower for children attending mixed formal and informal care.

Group size

Analysis showed that carer ratings of social competence were higher when children were cared for in smaller groups. Carer-rated behaviour problems did not appear to be related to group size. Parent-rated behaviour problems differed across the categories of group size, but did not show significant between-group differences in post hoc analyses.

Caregiver practices

Carer ratings of their own practices (active engagement in play, organisational focus) provided a further indicator of child care quality. As carers reported spending more time in active engagement with the children, both parent-rated scores and carer-rated scores for social competence increased.

In contrast, but also supporting the importance of quality for positive socio-emotional development, when carers reported spending more time on the organisational aspects of their work, ratings of behaviour problems increased. Parent ratings of the child's behaviour problems or competence were not associated with this aspect of care quality.


Results for the Growing Up in Australia children as a whole showed minimal differences in socio-emotional development between the groups of children receiving and not receiving child care. Although achieving significance, effect sizes were very small. Nonetheless, the direction of the findings suggest that child care had a positive rather than a negative effect on children's social and emotional wellbeing. Children who attended child care were rated by their parents as being more socially competent and having fewer behaviour problems than children who did not attend regular child care.

Within the overall category of "receiving regular non-parental child care", the more optimal ratings were received by the group of children receiving a mixture of formal and informal care. In relation to behaviour problems, lower scores were noted for children in informal or mixed formal/informal arrangements, suggesting that one-to-one or family care from a close relative or familiar adult may be protective against problems of emotional dysregulation, anxiety and aggression.

Reports by parents and carers linked more child-focused practice by carers with higher ratings for social relatedness and overall social competence. Additionally, and for carers' ratings only, social competence was higher when group size was smaller, and behaviour problems were higher when carers were more involved with the organisational aspects of providing care.

These findings are in keeping with reports from a growing field of international research studies linking higher quality care with more positive socio-emotional outcomes for children. What is different, however, in the present study is the reliance on caregiver self-report for computing an estimate of quality. By asking caregivers to estimate the proportional amounts of time they spend in various activities during their child care day, Growing Up in Australia gives emphasis to what carers do rather than using external criteria to assess levels of quality.

In summary, accumulated evidence from international studies, and now from Australia, underlines the key role that child care quality plays in ensuring young children's positive socio-emotional development. Findings from this study show the importance of what caregivers do in explaining the links between child care quality and enhanced positive as well as reduced negative behaviours in a large sample of 2-3 year old children. Clearly, quality is a feature of child care that cannot be underestimated or remain unquestioned when child care providers seek to elucidate and act on research in their practice. Attention must be given to the time that caregivers are actively engaged with the children in their care, and the ways that services can value and support this critical aspect to ensure that quality care is provided.

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