Socio-emotional Outcomes at Age Five: Does Childcare Make a Difference?

New research published today by the ESRI and Pobal investigates the effects of childcare in early life on children’s socio-emotional development at age five using a large representative sample of children (circa 9,000) from the Growing Up in Ireland study.  At age three, prior to the Free Preschool Year, around half the children in the study were in non-parental childcare.  There were three categories of non-parental childcare:

  • Relative care, usually by a grandparent
  • Non-relative care, typically a childminder
  • Centre-based care, e.g. crèche

Children’s socio-emotional outcomes were assessed based on their pro-social skills (e.g. sharing, kindness to younger children) and socio-emotional difficulties (e.g. conduct problems, emotional difficulties, hyperactivity/inattention and peer problems) as reported by their mothers and teachers.

How does childcare at age 3 influence socio-emotional outcomes at age five?

After taking account of a range of child, parent, family and neighbourhood level characteristics the study found that:

Relative care

Children cared for by relatives at age 3 have somewhat fewer socio-emotional difficulties and better social skills at age 5 than those looked after by their parents full-time.

Non-relative care

Children cared for by a non-relative (e.g. a childminder) at age three were rated by both parents and teachers as having fewer socio-emotional difficulties, in particular, fewer emotional and peer problems than children in full-time parental care.

Centre-based care

  • Parent-rated total socio-emotional difficulties scores did not differ between children who experienced centre-based care at age three and those in full-time parental care, and differences on teacher scores were minor. Teacher ratings showed slightly higher socio-emotional difficulties among children in centre-based care compared to children in parental care only, particularly for those in longer hours of care (over 30 hours).
  • Centre-based care was found to have a positive effect on teacher-rated socio-emotional development for a number of disadvantaged groups. Centre care is associated with a reduction in total difficulties for children in the lowest social class categories and with an increase in the pro-social scores for children from lone parent households.

Other key points:

  • Differences between parent and teacher ratings are consistently found in the international literature. Both provide valid information on children’s adjustment in different contexts.
  • Effects of childcare are small. Childcare type and hours of care at age three explained a very small proportion of variation in children’s scores (less than 1%).
  • As nearly all of the children participated in the Free Preschool Year between the ages of three and five, the effect of participation could not be tested.

Other important factors associated with socio-emotional outcomes: 

  • The child's health, gender, socio-economic background, family structure, and other family characteristics such as parenting style and parental stress had a greater impact on socio-emotional development than childcare.
  • Greater difficulties are found among boys, children living in households experiencing financial difficulties and those living in less safe neighbourhoods.

Welcoming the report, David Burke, Early Years Operations, Pobal, commented “We are delighted to see the launch of the first joint publication between Pobal and the ESRI. Pobal’s purpose is to highlight the significant issue of economic and social disadvantage, and the negative effect that this can have on the social and emotional development for Ireland’s youngest citizens, as well as highlighting the positive effect that early intervention and centre based childcare can have for children from disadvantaged households. Pobal looks forward to future collaborations with the ESRI on childcare and other related fields.”

Helen Russell,one of the authors of the report, added “The research findings provide critical insights into what factors promote children’s socio-emotional development, which is essential not only for their current wellbeing but also for their ability to settle into school and for their longer term educational attainment. We find some evidence to suggest that access to centre-based care provides more beneficial effects for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the effects are small and are not sufficient to level the playing field. The quality of care received is likely to be crucial.”